rachel's Reviews > Room

Room by Emma Donoghue
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Oct 10, 2010

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bookshelves: own, 2011, criminals-or-tremendous-creepers, unreliable-narrator
Read from March 07 to 10, 2011

** spoiler alert ** Not since Legend of a Suicide last year have I both admired a book and had such a strong emotional reaction to it. I am a sucker for a believable sort of tragedy. Not the kind of tragedy that ends in platitudes about hope and courage, but tragedies resolved by quiet determination and the sort of desperate love that means wanting to protect someone else more than wanting to live yourself.

But before I write anymore I should say that I am not a spoiler-phobic reader when it comes to literary fiction, even literary fiction with an element of suspense like Room. Books that are meant to thrill with story (but are lacking in style and characterization) may be ruined showing the reader all of their cards ahead of time. “Literary fiction” like Room has more than story to recommend. I’m going to go against the trend of marking any plot detail of this book a spoiler and say that I think it is possible to begin reading it knowing exactly what is going to happen and what Donoghue is trying to do, and finish it with full appreciation. So, essentially, that’s a warning: this review contains almost the full plot of the book. But that’s because I don’t think that knowing the plot spoils the experience of reading this book at all.

Five year-old Jack is the book's narrator. He lives in Room with his young mother. Room is a backyard shed converted into an 11x11 captive house by Old Nick, the man who kidnapped Ma when she was 19 and comes by nightly to have sex with her. (When this happens, Ma locks Jack away – not only so he can’t see, but so Old Nick can’t see him.) As you might be able to guess, Jack is the product of one of these nights. Jack and Ma pass their claustrophobic days in play, although Jack doesn’t think of Room as a terrible place like Ma does. To him, it’s a paradise that he and his mother share because he doesn’t fully grasp what’s going on.

When Old Nick loses his job and the bank threatens to repossess his property, Ma gets scared of what might happen to her and especially to Jack as he scrambles to cover up his crimes. She comes up with a plan to escape and asks for Jack’s help, even if he doesn’t want to leave. The second half of the book is about what it’s like for Ma and Jack in the Outside, the world beyond Room. It’s a world that Jack has never seen before, where he and his Ma will need to have more boundaries.

Room is maternal instinct in novel form. If you are the sort of person who is moved to read of a mother’s deep love for her child, then this book will move you. Particularly since it’s filtered through the eyes of that child, who innocently tells you what his Ma does or says and doesn’t understand the nuance of it while you, as an adult reader, do. Donoghue’s writing is smart and tender in exploring the way mother and son relate to each other in captivity and after escape. I liked that she doesn’t shy away from the almost incestuous undertones of their closeness – Jack is fixated on his mother’s breasts, since he still breastfeeds for comfort – but she also avoids scandalizing it, since they are basically each other’s world.

The book is not perfect. It’s overlong in its last section – I like Jack and want him to be well-adjusted, but don’t need to watch as he gets acclimated to every mundane thing in the world. The multi-cultural cast of characters seemed really forced. (I wasn’t surprised to hear on a Slate podcast that Emma Donoghue said she made Ma adopted “in part to show that there are all different kinds of families.” Remember: it may be written from the point of view of a kid, but, uh, this is a book for adults.)

There were moments in the book where I wished I could see things from Ma’s more developed perspective. There was a big aspect of her psychology that I really wasn’t satisfied with. Before she had Jack, she became pregnant with a baby girl, whom she lost during delivery because the umbilical cord became wrapped around her neck. Old Nick, who of course wouldn’t take her to the hospital for delivery, couldn’t help enough to save the child. Ma holds her death against Old Nick and mourns the loss of her baby girl.

I found it hard to believe that a young woman forced from her relatively carefree college life into captivity would mourn the loss of her rapist’s baby. I’m not saying she shouldn’t have valued the infant’s life in and of itself – it’s wonderful that she did – but I expected more of a struggle for her over what the girl (and what Jack) represents. More initial detachment, maybe. Especially since she doesn’t have anything like decent living conditions to actually raise her child in. I don’t know.

I’ll admit to being skeptical about Room, even after it was nominated for the Booker. I’m glad it was given to me as a gift, because I probably never would have read it otherwise.
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Reading Progress

03/07/2011 page 53
17.0% "I'm getting chills, both from how well-done this is and how horrifying it is at the same time."
03/08/2011 page 170
53.0% "This is the ideal book club book. I have so many thoughts about it that I can't wait to be finished and start writing a review to put them together."
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Comments (showing 1-7)




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Melissa I'm glad you wrote a review for this, I was waiting to see if you would. An excellent take. For me it seemed natural that she'd mourn the loss of the baby girl, even in a selfish way. It seemed to me that part of her enjoyment of Jack was just so she'd have someone else to alleviate the boredom of her existance in Room. Maybe part of mouring the first child was mourning the loss of a diversion from her situation? Anyway, well put.


rachel Thank you! Yeah, I thought that maybe she was mourning the baby because she wanted company, but for some reason that still didn't ring true to me. I'm probably personalizing it too much and thinking of how young she was, how I would feel at 19 or 20 in that situation. There would be strong feelings of "I do not want to have the child of this man who ruined my life." And if the baby died, I might have been traumatized by it, but I don't know if I'd have been sad. I don't know, I sort of wish Donoghue had explored that more.


message 5: by Amanda L (new) - added it

Amanda L I wish I could have made it through. Sounds like it'd been worth putting up with in the end. But now I really don't have to-- thanks for all the spoilers!

If the psyche of a main character feels underdeveloped, then I'm guessing I wouldn't have liked it anyway.


rachel No, it's not that Jack's psyche felt underdeveloped. It's just that because of his age, he doesn't have the understanding of certain events that his mother would have. I did think this book had something to offer, for both me as a reader and in general to the world.


message 3: by Amanda L (last edited Jul 22, 2014 06:21AM) (new) - added it

Amanda L I was referring to the mother's perspective being underdeveloped in how she coped with losing and raising children resulting from rape (from the comments in your review in the last 3 paragraphs).

I really tried, but I just couldn't get into the child voice. I guess I just wasn't convinced. I'm sure it would have much to offer if I could get over that hurdle.


rachel Ahhh, gotcha. I read your comment wrong. It was hard to get into the child's voice, definitely rings false for at least the first few pages. How far did you get?


message 1: by Amanda L (new) - added it

Amanda L Admittedly not very far at all. I think maybe 20 or so pages. It's the first book I've just decided to give up on (and not because others haven't warranted giving up, but I finally resigned myself to be realistic about how much there is out there that I actually *want* to read). Maybe I'll attempt it again someday. It's still on my to-read shelf, but that's mostly because I'm a veritable virtual hoarder!


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