Inspired by the Joseph Fritzl case this novel moves beyond the gruesome aspects of imprisonment to create a story of love and growing up, says Julie Harvey
Selected for the Man Booker shortlist, Room is the latest novel from Irish writer Emma Donoghue. Though a prolific and award-winning novelist, Donoghue has not been the sort of household name guaranteed to top the bestseller lists. Room should change that.
The novel addresses some broad themes concerning childhood: the innate selfishness of children, how they become aware the world doesn’t revolve around them and how we currently bring them up.
The narrator is Jack, a five-year-old boy. He lives with his mother in a single locked room of eleven square feet. For him this
is normality and everything else outside his home is like outer space. He has no concept of other people or the outside world apart from his Ma and Old Nick, their shadowy captor who makes nightly visits.
Even Old Nick is not a real person to Jack; he’s part of life but something to be scared of like a fairy tale villain. On TV Jack sees everyday things like dogs, parks and airplanes but to him everything on the screen is a story, no different from Alice in Wonderland or Dylan the Digger.
Ma has managed to protect him from the horrific truth of their lives and give him a ‘normal’ loving childhood. Together, they make toys from discarded packaging and write letters to cartoon characters on toilet paper. They have structured days of keeping physically active, reading story books together and playing word games – just the sort of activities any parent would need to keep a young child entertained.
Through Jack’s eyes we see glimpses of Ma’s unhappiness and the strain and boredom of being trapped 24/7 in a small space with a demanding child. We also feel Ma’s tremendous patience and the strength of their mutual love and affection, and it’s this combined with Jack’s enjoyment and creativity with language that makes the book so warm and such a pleasure to read.
When we meet Jack on his fifth birthday all his beliefs are slowly starting to be challenged. It’s clear that Ma’s constructed truths will not satisfy his curiosity much longer as he starts to ask more complicated questions. He’s already growing too big for his makeshift bed in the wardrobe, where he’s hidden nightly when Old Nick comes to make Ma’s bed creak. Something has to give and it won’t be giving away much of the plot to let on that they embark on a plan to escape.
The novel initially sparked controversy when Donoghue announced that she had drawn inspiration from the Joseph Fritzl case. Although the similarities begin and end with the family’s imprisonment. Room isn’t prurient, it doesn’t dwell on the more gruesome aspects of the imprisonment, such as Ma’s sexual slavery and the kidnapper and his motives are hardly referred to at all. Rather Jack’s innocent gaze redeems the experience into a tale about love and growing up.
Donoghue has skillfully given voice to a five year old in a narrative that is eminently believable – the language is literal and humorous with a child’s delight in the contradictions we take for granted.
Some hilarious comic moments punctuate even the most tense scenes. In the end Room is a feel-good novel which in the truest sense of the phrase leaves you optimistic about the human capacity for change and adaptation. Jack’s world is magical and full of potential, and leaves the reader disappointed to finish reading and stop seeing things through his eyes.
You can purchase The Room in CultureNorthernIreland's Amazon store.