Nandakishore Varma's Reviews > Room

Room by Emma Donoghue
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Oct 09, 12

bookshelves: general-fiction
Read in March, 2012

** spoiler alert ** 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.

Still I will give this novel four stars 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. The deduction of one star is for the rather insipid second half and the totally unbelievable escape.

Highly recommended.
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Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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Suzanne You seemed to burn through this one in a hurry. I remember that's how I read it -- couldn't put it down once I got going.


Nandakishore Varma I bought it Friday evening and finished it Saturday night. The Room sucked me into it!


message 3: by Petra X (new)

Petra X I never wanted to read the book from any other review I've read. But I do now.


Praj nice review of a book that annoyed me a bit.


Nandakishore Varma Praj wrote: "nice review of a book that annoyed me a bit."

Why did it annoy you? I'm interested.


Praj Nandakishore wrote: "Praj wrote: "nice review of a book that annoyed me a bit."

Why did it annoy you? I'm interested."


http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...


message 7: by Katy (new) - added it

Katy Can 5-year-old boys really have erections? I thought that came later in life. *shrug*


Nandakishore Varma Confession (shame faced): I remember getting them, early in the mornings...


message 9: by Katy (new) - added it

Katy Nandakishore wrote: "Confession (shame faced): I remember getting them, early in the mornings..."

Hmph. I had no idea, since I was a younger sister (by 11 years), have no children of my own, and didn't live around my family when my two nephews were younger. I just had it in my head that those sorts of things started up closer to puberty. *shrug* Interesting - learn something new every day. :-)


Nandakishore Varma In those days, you get the erections, but you don't know what it's for: other than the feeling it's somehow embarassing...

I remember I asked my mother once, and she shushed me (none too gently).


message 11: by Katy (new) - added it

Katy Mothers are so uptight about self-exploration. One day I was playing with some kittens and pretend-growling (grrrr) when I thought it would sound more interesting if I added another sound. I fiddled around with it, and decided the sound vul was neat with it, so I was sitting there with the kittens saying vulgrrrrrvulgrrrrr and Mom scolded me for saying a "bad" word. Vulgar? A bad word? Really? *sigh* And I didn't even know I was saying it, I just thought I was making interesting sounds.

You should have seen her when I was learning about geology and showed her a piece of rock and told her "Hey, this is a piece of schist!... no, schist, schist; it's a type of metamorphic rock! Gheesh!"


message 12: by Gopakumar (new)

Gopakumar Nair Katy wrote: "Mothers are so uptight about self-exploration. One day I was playing with some kittens and pretend-growling (grrrr) when I thought it would sound more interesting if I added another sound. I fidd..."

Being a geologist,I am tempted to ask you whether you studied geology as your major ?


message 13: by Katy (last edited Oct 18, 2012 08:54AM) (new) - added it

Katy Gopakumar, no, I did not end up studying geology, but it is a field in which I'm interested; that and archaeology. However, I don't really have the sort of physical strength (read: "any") necessary for that sort of work.


Juanita Rice An interesting review, and I very much agree that the plot elements were too weak to sustain the "emergence" myth" if you will: i.e., the not-quite-believable escape and the aftermath. I have two comments you might find interesting.

One, I believe that the author is engaged in exploring something extremely important in the second half besides the intimacy and interbeing of Ma and Jack, and that is the fact that there is no "after" a trauma. Think of PTSD, for an example. Ma could never escape what had happened, even though the primary trauma was in the past, she is unalterably changed upon escape. If one is sustained by hope of "living through" something, it is almost unbearable to realize that it--the something--still lives in one.

If we could understand that fact, as a society, we might better deal with addiction recovery, transformative justice, and "help" programs. A Ghetto Gangbanger is responding to trauma that he/she hardly hopes to live through; if he/she escapes, that trauma is still in him/her. I once read a study of depression among teenagers who lived where getting shot on the street was a commonplace. So I admired the author here for trying to explore that idea at all.

Second, I find the connective leap from the situation of Ma and Jack to the surely discredited Oedipal myth unjustified and improbable. Not that the canonized Freudian version of human consciousness doesn't haunt our ideologies, including the author's, but I don't think we should automatically collude with the myth. Of course, this proposal merits its own long discussion, so I'm just offering my thoughts as conjectures. But I want to hypothesize that, yes, a young child will "resent" daddy if daddy is cold, distant, demanding, punitive, and essentially resentful of any time or emotion the mother gives to the "competitor." In other words, when the father is infantile and stunted. That does not have to be a normal son-father interaction, and such an interaction is not limited to male children and their fathers. The cathected (neurotically attached) relationship of Jack and his mother emerges not from human nature but from the traumatic circumstances of the plot. Perhaps?


Juanita Rice Katy wrote: "Mothers are so uptight about self-exploration. One day I was playing with some kittens and pretend-growling (grrrr) when I thought it would sound more interesting if I added another sound. I fidd..."

And your father was, what?, supportive? That might present its own problems, no?


Juanita Rice Juanita wrote: "Katy wrote: "Mothers are so uptight about self-exploration. One day I was playing with some kittens and pretend-growling (grrrr) when I thought it would sound more interesting if I added another s..."

Sorry if I'm too gender-conscious this morning. I'm reading "Delusions of Gender" and I slept on a particularly aggravating chapter last night.


message 17: by Katy (new) - added it

Katy "Katy wrote: "Mothers are so uptight about self-exploration."

Juanita wrote: "And your father was, what?, supportive? That might present its own problems, no? "


Dad was not always there, of course, so missed out on a lot of this sort of stuff - I grew up on a ranch, where Dad was out in the fields or taking care of the livestock and Mom and I were at the main ranch taking care of the house, garden, milk cows, chickens, cats, dogs, etc... So, Dad was around at mealtimes, chore times, and at night, but since I was to be in bed by 8 p.m. when I was younger - well, so, most of those sorts of memories involve my mom - who was a lot more likely to freak out about things than dad anyway. Such a drama queen, she was... Heh.


Margitte I agree with your comment "Room by Emma Donoghue is an extraordinary book. It is not literary, despite the Booker nomination" as well as "stretches credibility almost to the point of breaking" Excellent review!! I just finished it.


Nandakishore Varma thanks!


Cecily Maybe the breastfeeding was meant to be Oedipal, but is it really? It's not uncommon in some cultures to breastfeed up to the age of two or three, and some people do it much longer. Given their situation, it would have provided comfort for Jack and Ma, and was just part of their routine.

For me, the greatest weakness of the book was the inconsistency of Jack's language, though at least by seeing everything through his eyes, we were spared graphic details.


Nandakishore Varma I was breastfed up to the age of three. I can still remember the taste... ;)


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