Scared is what you’re feeling. Brave is what you’re doing.
It’s Jack’s birthday, and he’s excited about turning five.
Jack lives with his Ma in Room, which has a locked door and a skylight, and measures 11 feet by 11 feet. He loves watching TV, and the cartoon characters he calls friends, but he knows that nothing he sees on screen is truly real – only him, Ma, and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits that there’s a world outside…
Told in Jack’s voice, Room is the story of a mother and son whose love lets them survive the impossible. Unsentimental and sometimes funny, devastating yet uplifting, Room by Emma Donoghue is a novel like no other.
Room is told from the perspective of Jack who has just turned five. Jack lives with his mother and it quickly becomes apparent that theirs is not a normal set up. They live in a single room which they can’t leave, and Jack has never set foot in the outside world. At the start of the novel, he doesn’t even believe that there is an outside world – just them, their room, and an individual he calls Old Nick who sometimes visits them. How they came to be in this situation is gradually revealed as the novel progresses and while some of it isn’t easy to read, by using a child’s perspective Donoghue spares the reader the worst of the detail whilst leaving little scope for doubt as to what has happened to Jack’s mother. It’s a fine balancing act to keep the perspective plausible whilst still providing the reader with the information that they need but Donoghue does this brilliantly.
That said, telling the story from Jack’s perspective is risky given his age, and if I’m honest it’s not something that I usually enjoy – it’s the main reason that I’ve avoided the novel (first published in 2010 in the UK) for so long. Donoghue gets away with it here as Jack’s voice is unique. Despite having never been to nursery / preschool, his mother has taught him well, and while there’s the occasional slip into baby speak or the odd misstep, I found myself pleasantly surprised at how engaging Jack’s narrative is. Despite this, the reader does share his mother’s occasional frustration with him. It’s not his fault that he’s never known anything other than the room in which they live, and yet what his mother has endured is horrific. She has shown herself to be incredibly resilient, but she is understandably angry and frustrated with their situation and that sometimes comes to the fore, particularly if Jack is being difficult.
Room is a fantastic novel. I do think that it would have been interesting to get Ma’s point of view in places – not for the detail on her experiences, but simply to understand how she keeps going in that situation. Jack himself will be a part of her motivation, but retaining even a sliver of hope must be difficult, especially as the years go by. That said, it would be a more difficult read if given Ma’s perspective directly, and I do like the way in which the reader is shielded from the true horror of their situation by Jack’s limited understanding of the circumstances whilst still exploring the emotional, physical, and psychological impact on them both with the reader understanding what Jack is observing even when he doesn’t. Highly recommended, although it’s not the easiest of reads given some of the subject matter.