Larry Buhl's Reviews > Room

Room by Emma Donoghue
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Nov 27, 2011

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Read in November, 2011

** spoiler alert ** My reaction when learning Room was narrated by a 5-year-old boy was, "uh oh." I assumed it would seem gimmicky, grow stale/annoying fast, or the narration would be inconsistent. Unfortunately I was right. I tried to like it, really.

The first half of the book takes place in the room. For nearly 100 pages - this is a longer book than it needs to be, btw - we are not sure why Jack and his mother are locked in the room, or rather "Room". When it suddenly dawns on her to tell the son, and us, what's going on, that she was kidnapped at nineteen by Old Nick, and gave birth to her son there, and can't get out, it becomes engaging. Soon she hatches a plot to escape. The escape plan seems pretty farfetched, and it's surprising that she thinks it up all of a sudden, even though she has had seven years in captivity to come up with a plan. Still, how this escape plays out provides the only drama in the book, and it really is gripping. That's not to say it's believable; the escape was actually pretty clumsy and unbelievable, BUT it moved. Before that point, we see their daily ritual - too much of it.

What comes after the escape is Jack's too-quick return to a normal childhood. This return to society is virtually free of major traumas. In fact the only conflict is with the mother, when she overdoes on pills. She's fine, she lives, but the overdose is an excuse to take her out of the narrative and take Jack away from her for the first time in his life. And away he goes. She allows him to go with his uncle and aunt to a mall - a MALL - after he had spent only a week in a rehab facility. Nothing much happens at the mall, except they let him out of sight and he gets lost.

Still, Jack seems to cope with the outside world pretty well. While his mom - remember, she has been his whole world for his life - remains out of the picture, he stays with his grandparents, and adjusts to them fairly well, despite his grandmother's (an annoying woman) impatient tone. He gets his first bee sting and sunburn (being without sunlight for his whole life, and away from germs, he was pretty vulnerable). No biggie. He misses his mother, but not enough to stop eating. He misses his rug from the room, but he gets it back. I kept thinking/hoping there would be some kind of bigger conflict about to come: that he can't adapt at all, maybe he will become deathly ill from the new germs, or maybe someone will try to kidnap him again, or possibly he will try to run away back to the room and everyone will have to look for him. Nope, none of that. After they leave Room, the story is basically over, and the last 150 pages were surprisingly skim-worthy. In fact, the book could have ended once the police captured Old Nick. Or, it could have switched to the mother's perspective and given us a break from the child's voice.

Biggest problem: the narration itself. First, it's hard on the reader to be inside the head of any five-year-old for that long. Second, writing in the voice of a small child is hard to pull off because there are so many chances for error. Mainly, the voice is inconsistent. At times he seems like five, sometimes like three, sometimes like ten, and occasionally like 25 (making a few observations, such as the fact that adults don't have much time and are "stressed out). Pretty astute, and true, yet doesn't ring true that a five year old would say that or say it in that way. During the TV interview with his mom that he watches he recites what the adults are saying verbatim. Trouble is, no five-year-old would be able to understand all of those words and recite them exactly as spoken, because it would require a comprehension of an adult (or at least that of an older child). Why, if Ma has taught him such big words, does he have the grammar/sentence structure of a much younger child?

And, do 5-year-olds have interior monologues at all?

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