Warning: This review contains spoilers
Room by Emma Donoghue is an extraordinary book. It is not literary, despite the Booker nomination: the first half reads like a thriller of the darker variety and the second half like a tear-jerker. The whole story seems contrived, and one part (the escape of Jack from the Room) stretches credibility almost to the point of breaking. Yet, the novel is strangely compelling and once taken up, hard to put down. Why?
I believe this is because of the psychological and mythical depth of the narrative. The author herself has said two things prompted her to write this novel. One, the extraordinarily limited world of a person forced to stay in close confinement for an extended period of time: the second, the bond between the child and the mother, especially in the early oral stages where they are scarcely two entities. Let us examine each in turn.
Jack’s Ma (she is never named in the novel: she exists only as the Mother) has been confined in a soundproof, eleven feet-by-eleven feet shed in his backyard by a psychopath (known only as Old Nick) for seven years. She has been abducted by him and kept there as his sex slave since she was nineteen: Jack has been born in captivity, her second child by Nick (the first had been a stillbirth). Jack has never been outside the shed. He calls it Room, and it is all the world to him: a living, breathing entity. What is seen on the TV is a myth, and all the people inhabiting that world are unreal. The only other real (or semi-real) entity is Old Nick, whom Jack has never seen, as his mother hides him in the wardrobe as Nick comes for his nightly visit. Nick is known to Jack only through the creaks of the bed as he rapes his mother.
Jack’s world is claustrophobic, but he does not know it, as it is the only world he has known for the five years of his life. For him, the existence is idyllic, a composite entity composed of only he and his Ma. All the toys, books and collages made from junk by his mother are living entities for Jack. We see Room only through his eyes: Emma Donoghue has done a fantastic job with the kid’s POV. He is very advanced in certain ways but extremely juvenile in other. His language is a curious mixture of portmanteau words, grammar mistakes, and long phrases picked up from TV. It is the brilliance of the author which makes us feel the claustrophobia of the atmosphere for Jack’s mother even when he himself revels in it.
Coming to the curious relationship between Jack and Ma, the Oedipal suggestions are very evident. Ma still breast-feeds Jack, even though he is five (it is called “having some” – I found that terminology vaguely vulgar, therefore effective): his penis always “stands up” in the morning. This is the “mythical drama played out in every nursery”, as Joseph Campbell said: the urge of the son to kill the father and marry the mother – and the father here deserves very much to be killed.
Jack is the hero of all the fairy tales his mother tells him, like the eponymous hero of most English fairy tales. His birth in captivity, escape and rescue of his mother also parallels the story of many a Godchild (Krishna comes to mind immediately). It is highly significant that Jack prays to the Baby Jesus, and also that the villain is known as “Old Nick” – the name of the Devil.
The book is split in two: the first part in Room, and the second out of it (or “Outside” as Jack calls it). The author’s aim in structuring the narrative thus is evident; to show that Jack and Ma have become a single entity almost, impossible to separate. In fact, Room has travelled with them. The invisible prison continues to suffocate Ma to such an unbearable stage that she tries to commit suicide.
Ultimately, Jack is partially rehabilitated when he goes back to the Room and says goodbye to it. We feel that finally there is a ray of hope. However, even with that upbeat ending, one has to say that the novel sort of loses steam in the second half.
However, for the daring concept and the craft of keeping the child narrator’s voice genuine through 400 pages (no mean achievement): also for the very real claustrophobia of Room and the mythical and psychological dimensions, I would highly recommend this book.