Cecily's Reviews > Room

Room by Emma Donoghue
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THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY?

This seems to be a real Marmite book (love it or loathe it, with no fence-sitting), so I'm going to mix my metaphors: I bit the bullet, to see which way the wind was blowing and was surprised to find myself sitting on the empty fence. I was very undecided about stars, but there are many much better books I've given 3*, so this gets 2*, even though there was, on reflection, more to it than I first thought. The quality of the writing is not sufficient for 3*.

Overall, I think it’s poorly written (exacerbated by the way Donoghue tries to use unusual language for specific effect), but it is something of a page-turner, it’s quite a quick read (unless you overempathise, get depressed, and need a break) and it does contain some interesting ideas, especially in the second half about aspects of coping with “freedom” (though I am unsure how many are taken directly from news reports and interviews with former captives, and how many are her own).


OVERVIEW

The situation is well-known: a twenty six year old woman, “Ma”, is living with her five year old son, Jack, in a tiny locked room. She has been there since she was abducted aged nineteen, and the story is narrated by Jack. They have daily visits from their captor, who brings meagre supplies, though they do have a TV and half a dozen books. Jack thinks reality is everything in their room, and that everything “in TV” is pretend.

The first half of the book is set in Room (yes, with a capital letter and no article (“a” or “the”), like most of the few objects in their lives), and the second half is on the outside. It is clearly influenced by the recent news stories of Natasha Kampusch and Jaycee Lee Duggard etc, and that potentially prurient aspect did hold me back from reading this book for a long time. But I subsequently learned that Donoghue has said she was more influenced by the Fritzl case, which seems odd, because that was fundamentally different, as the abductor, imprisoner, and impregnator was the father of the young woman (more than one, initially).

LANGUAGE AND WRITING

Right from the start, I found the narration annoying - not because it's by a 5-year old, but because he's such an unconvincing 5-year old. For example, he has a very good vocabulary for his age (fair enough), and yet there are a few really basic words that he seems not to know (instead of "a man" or "the woman" he refers to "a he" and "the she" - except on one occasion when he unaccountably gets it right), and he often gets irregular past tenses and word order wrong, in the way that children younger than five often do (“I winned”, “we knowed”, “I brung”, “why you don’t like” and to a driver, “may you go us please to…”). Furthermore, he repeatedly makes these errors despite his mother's diligence in correcting his grammar and the fact he watches TV.

It’s almost as if you can see Donoghue weighing up the need for Jack to be intelligent and insightful enough to tell the story in an engaging way (which, to a large extent, he does) with the need to tick certain boxes to make it clear he is just a small child. Similarly, we’re expected to believe that Jack points out “a dog crossing a road with a human on a rope” and thinks someone lighting up is trying to set himself on fire, even though he’s had TV and a mother who has tried to teach him about the (fictitious) world.

The fact Jack is still breastfed is not surprising: it’s comforting for both of them. What is surprising though is that the word itself seems to be taboo (instead, he talks about “having some”, without ever saying what), and yet he’s happy to use the words “penis” and “vagina”, and is open about bathing with his mother. That may sound like nit-picking, but it’s an example of the sort of thing that frustrated me. I just didn’t feel Donoghue had really thought it through thoroughly. If you’re going to play with language to make your point, you need to be able to do so convincingly.

PLOT

The book is in five sections, though really it falls more naturally into two: inside and outside.

The relationship between mother and son is touching and the book opens by establishing the routines and rituals of their restricted life, including the almost liturgical way they say “good night” to all their (few) possessions: “Good night, Room… good night, Rug” etc. The creativity required to raise a child in a confined space with such limited resources are impressive, too (they blow their eggs, so the whole shells can be threaded to make a snake, and do PE using their limited furniture as gym props).

Initially, and in some ways, their life doesn’t seem as bad as you might expect, and even the first appearance of their captor (“Old Nick”) is relatively benign. That reflects the way Ma is raising Jack in the most positive way she can. Of course, we know something of the real horrors of the story, and they are discussed, though never in graphic detail, in part because Jack’s comprehension is limited, and in part because of Ma's success in shielding him from the nature of the situation.

I thought the escape was badly done, but much better is the when, leading up to it, Ma has to explain to Jack that what he’s seen “in TV” is real. They go through a confusing process of “unlying” as she tries to prepare him for what might follow an escape.

Once outside, it’s superficially about the practicalities of adjusting to the real world, but really it’s questioning the nature and price of freedom. I found this part had more interesting ideas, but contained more implausibility of plot (though I’m no expert in such matters) and very flat new characters. In particular, the method and speed with which the police locate Room was absurd, and also some of the logistics, practicalities and oversights of those charged with their care and settlement on the outside were dodgy, such as the first planned trip for these traumatised celebrities being to a museum with an uncle whom Jack had only met once!

WHAT IS FREEDOM?

The reader roots for Ma and Jack to escape, and they do (no spoiler – the book blurb tells you). Hooray! But of course they soon discover a new form of captivity: medical/psychiatric, hiding from fame, and so on. And this is where it gets interesting and starts to feel more plausible. Jack’s only knowledge of outside is from occasional TV programmes, and Ma’s is from seven years ago, when she was a carefree student, rather than a traumatised mother. Jack has to discover the world, and Ma has to (re)discover a new version of herself; she tells Jack, “I know you need me to be your ma but I’m having to remember how to be me as well”, to which he replies, “But I thought the her and the Ma were the same”. Similarly, having more, can leave one feeling impoverished: Jack is puzzled when Ma cautions him to be careful of something her brother gave to her, “I didn’t know it was hers-not-mine. In Room everything was ours.”

Some of the things they struggle to cope with are not ones that would initially have occurred to me (germs, sunburn, stairs), and one effect is to make it almost as if Jack has acquired Asperger’s syndrome: he can’t filter the multiple stimuli of a busy world; doesn’t understand social conventions, etiquette, and privacy; is confused by relationships and pronouns (“The ‘you’ means Ma, not me, I’m getting good at telling”); takes common idioms literally (such as “I’m afraid so” and “get his act together”, but surely some cropped up from Ma and TV?); doesn’t like being touched or having to wear shoes; is borderline agoraphobic; increases his counting-his-teeth stress-relieving tactic; is uncoordinated from poor spatial perception; and feels insecure without routine. Jack asks, “But what’s the rule?”, to which he is told “There is no rule.” That’s a liberating idea to Ma, but scary to Jack. He misses Room and his few possessions because it’s all he’d ever known; Ma, understandably, wants to leave it all behind both literally and in even from conversation and memory. When he has nightmares, the doctor says “Now you’re safe, it’s [the brain] gathering up all those scary thoughts you don’t need any more, and throwing them out”, but Jack disagrees, “actually he’s got it backwards. In Room I was safe and Outside is the scary.”

Another aspect is how Ma’s family react. The girl they knew – and thought dead – has been replaced by someone similar, but different, and they have Jack to contend with. Ma loves him unconditionally, despite his parentage, but if you were her mother or father, how would you feel about this constant reminder of what happened?


To sum up, this wasn’t as prurient as I feared, and it was very thought-provoking, but it could have been SO much better.


THE FILM

The only occasions I've preferred a film to the original book are where I didn't enjoy the book. I'm told the film of this is excellent, especially the boy who plays Jack. A couple of friends, who knew my reasons for disliking this, have almost persuaded me to see it. I don't think I'll pay money to watch it in the cinema, but once it's on TV, I might. With the right cast, and subtle direction and dialog, I may change my views of what should be a powerful story.



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Reading Progress

September 12, 2012 – Started Reading
September 12, 2012 – Shelved
September 20, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-50 of 82 (82 new)


Sunny Can't wait to hear whether this book floats your boat or sinks your ship. LOL!


message 2: by K.D. (last edited Sep 23, 2012 02:38PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

K.D. Absolutely Oh no. It sank in my case. Good luck, Cecily. *can't wait*


Paul We need a no holds barred review that doesn't pull any punches, avoiding cliches like the plague!


message 4: by Jonathan (new) - added it

Jonathan Terrington I hope the captain didn't go down with the ship in this case?


message 5: by Cecily (last edited Sep 20, 2012 11:58PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Cecily Umm... the captain tried to kick the bucket, but isn't pushing up daisies. He might have been rescued by the parrot!

(See appended, but not final, review.)


message 6: by Jonathan (new) - added it

Jonathan Terrington To read or not to read, that is the question...


Cecily Hard to say. I wouldn't recommend paying full price for it (I didn't), but it's not a long or difficult read - unless you're so empathetic you can only read it in small doses. The other tricky thing is that the second half is much more interesting than the first, but if you gave up part way through, you wouldn't know.


message 8: by Bev (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bev I loved it. I dont think it was necessary for the 5 year old to be a baby. Certainly my daughter at 5 could think for herself. It is an unusual book and that in and of itself makes a change. Most of these tales of kidnapping are done true crime style and I cannot abide that genre.
It is an easy read and not very long either which adds to the charm. I do not agree about the split either. I think the book is deliberately done in two parts but both are fascinating. The writing is not poor but simple for a purpose. This book will be a classic of the future. Unlike all the spawn of YA vampire dystopia books we are having thrust upon us right now.


Cecily Bev, I'll expand on my comment about the poor writing when I write a proper review, but my objections are about inconsistency and implausibility, rather than childishness (which is entirely appropriate). But I agree that it's far better than a YA vampire dystopia.


message 10: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Wow, didn't realize this one was written from the P.O.V. of a 5 year old. That sounds.... annoying?


message 11: by Cecily (last edited Sep 21, 2012 05:19AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Cecily He's a bright five year old, and he's not as annoying as you might expect. It was the inconsistency that irked me. For example, he had a very good vocabulary for his age, and yet there were a few really basic words that he seemed not to know (instead of "a man" or "the woman" he referred to "a he" and "the she" - except on one occasion when he got it right), and he often got irregular past tenses wrong in the way that children younger than five often do, and despite his mother's correction.


message 12: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Hmmm, that would be irksome. That is a ambitious task though. I feel the same way in films when the children are way too adult or conscious/understanding of events, it really takes me out of whats going on.


message 13: by Jonathan (new) - added it

Jonathan Terrington Ah I hate, inconsistency; in writing. It irritates me more than anything else in pieces - of writing...


Cecily I've now written a proper review, which makes a few of my comments above superfluous, but I won't delete them, otherwise the conversation wouldn't make sense.


message 15: by Caroline (last edited Sep 23, 2012 01:34AM) (new) - added it

Caroline A great review... plus it's a positive to know that it's not too prurient, and that the second half outside the room is better than the first bit. That will encourage me to keep reading. (The two stars are a deterrent, but as my library stocks it I will give it a go.)


Jason Yeah, I definitely fell the other way with this. I thought the child POV was done really well (and I usually hate child narrators). I also thought it was good that the book didn't focus solely on their seclusion & escape. That the second half dealt with the aftermath was, I thought, responsible and seemed really genuine to me.


Cecily Caroline: Definitely no gory details (far less than you would read in a newspaper), mainly because it's narrated by Jack. And that does free up the book to focus on his comprehension and incomprehension of the world, which is what makes it interesting.

Jason: I think "responsible" is a good word (though some of those charged with caring for Ma and Jack didn't seem very responsible to me).


Jason Cecily wrote: "Jason: I think "responsible" is a good word (though some of those charged with caring for Ma and Jack didn't seem very responsible to me)."

No, but it does seem to ring true-to-life, doesn't it? And I think that's what I liked about it, is that the story doesn't fall prey to a need for a neat & tidy ending (on one end of the spectrum) or a ridiculous last-minute twist (at the other end). The aftermath seems very real time, including the irresponsibility of the caretakers & professionals (the depiction of which was handled responsibly).


Cecily Hmm. I'm glad the ending wasn't neat and tidy or with a ridiculous twist, but I'm not sure I'd go as far as describing it as true-to-life.


message 20: by K.D. (new) - rated it 1 star

K.D. Absolutely Spot on review, Cecil.


message 21: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks for this detailed review. I agree with most. I valued the examination of concepts like freedom, and discerning the difference between what is real and what is not. Even with a few inconsistencies in the writing, that ultimate point gave it a lot of power. How many of us feel more comfortable in a proscribed space, physical or mental, and cannot handle the potentially agoraphobia-inducing experience of actual freedom?


Cecily I think our analysis is similar, even though we reached different conclusions about the overall quality of the book.


Jason A review like this is why I feel like "likes" are a good tool. You basically capture what I feel about the book better than I could have, including some observations that I hadn't even managed to put together into words/thoughts. It makes me wonder if there should be some tool allowing my review to just point to yours...I mean, I could post a link to this as my review, but that would come off as both sycophantic and self-flattering (like my opinion is so lofty that people would have to defer to me to point them at your review). This isn't the only review/reviewer to make me ponder this, as my leaving the "my reivew" section blank just makes it seem like I don't have enough of an opinion to write anything. End of rambling.


Cecily Feel free to ramble away, Jordan (especially when it's complimentary!).

I've sometimes felt similar, but usually either before I've read a book, or after I've reviewed it, so it's less of a problem. Consequently, I think my links to other people's reviews tend to be for books on my TBR shelf, to remind me why they're there.


Nicola Cataldo It was generous of you to devote so much time and thought to this review when the book didn't really deserve it. When the narrator is such an unconvincing character, how can one be expected to go on this ride at all? It was poorly written and relied solely on it's shock value. Horror porn in otherwords.


Cecily Thanks, though I don't think of it as generous. I want to remember what I thought of the book and why, so I jot it all down.


message 27: by Apatt (new)

Apatt One aspect of your (otherwise excellent) review is your stance on Marmite, yay or nay?

Also, I ought to tell you that I kind of ripped off your Redemption Ark review here.
You know what they say about the sincerest form of flattery ;)


message 28: by Cecily (last edited Aug 05, 2013 01:50AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Cecily Apatt wrote: "One aspect of your (otherwise excellent) review is your stance on Marmite, yay or nay?"

Ha ha. I like Marmite, though I don't often eat it - however, where this book is concerned, I'm on the other side of the fence, as you no doubt noticed.


Apatt wrote: "Also, I ought to tell you that I kind of ripped off your Redemption Ark review here.
You know what they say about the sincerest form of flattery ;)"


It's not usually plagiarism if you cite sources, so I'm cool with that.


message 29: by Amy (new)

Amy Thank you so much for this review! I have had mixed feelings about reading this since it was published. Typically, I wouldn't even consider it. I'm not only a mother with two young children (ages 7 & 5) but a former family and child therapist. I've worked with both offenders and victims of sexual abuse, and have a hard time reading about either. Both because of my emotional response, and because of the often inaccurate information and portrayal of offenders and victims. Because of the high ratings and awards, however, I had been highly considering it. Your review gave me the validation I needed to go with my gut and pass on this one. I think the inconsistent language of the five year old narrator alone would be frustrating (and probably distracting) for me. I understand the need to have him speak in a way as to get the story told to the readers, but I'd have trouble with the gross regression in language at other times...especially as someone who communicates with a five year old several hours every day :)


Cecily Thanks for your comments, Amy. It's not the sort of book I'd normally read (though my son is much older than your children), but I'd read so many good reviews that when I saw it in a charity shop, I picked it up. In some ways, it was better than I expected (no grisly details), but overall, as you can see, I thought it was very poorly written. It's a shame, because it did have good qualities that a decent editor might have been able to bring out. Ho hum. I've enjoyed discussing it.


message 31: by Shaun (last edited Aug 01, 2015 11:21AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Shaun Overall, I think it’s poorly written (exacerbated by the way Donoghue tries to use unusual language for specific effect)

I agree, though I'm not sure I would've have said poorly written. I think you nailed it when you talk about the inconsistencies, which bothered me.

I found this part had more interesting ideas, but contained more implausibility of plot (though I’m no expert in such matters) and very flat new characters.

Absolutely agree. I'm no expert either but in the Fritzl recounting I read, the physical issues, which included a need to wear a mask to protect against germs, the need to wear special eye protection and to wear protection for their translucent skin, were only overshadowed by the emotional ones. And here Jack goes on a day trip with his uncle only six days after leaving Room. It was very implausible. One of the kids in the Fritzl story, the one only a year older than Jack, wouldn't even leave his mother's side for weeks. They all required special attention both physically and mentally. They were kept in a special wing of the hospital and there was intense security to prevent the media from breaking in to get pictures of the family (which were worth tens of thousands of dollars). Even the whole grandparent thing just seemed to lack credibility when you stop and think about the emotional implications of coming from a tiny Room to the "real" world.

I mean his Ma, his entire world, tries to kill herself...grandma brings him home to a completely new environment, puts him on the air mattress and is like, Okay...see you soon. I'm going to go watch some TV, now. Yeah...this is fiction, but that just seemed like a huge stretch.


Cecily Shaun wrote: "I agree, though I'm not sure I would've have said poorly written."

I found the narrator's voice so unconvincing that it weakened the whole book for me. I seem to be in a minority in the strength of my reaction to that though.

Shaun wrote: "I'm no expert either but in the Fritzl recounting I read, the physical issues... were only overshadowed by the emotional ones. "

Thanks for that. I haven't read much detail about the Fritzl case or other real life situations.


message 33: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel As someone who currently has a five-year-old relative, your language examples make me cringe. Five-year-olds actually seem to speak more or less the same as adults, barring a few childish words, occasional mispronunciations, and an entirely different set of interests.

Lack of peers might cause some impairment in the short term, but with an attentive parent and plenty of access to TV, you'd think there'd be more than enough language material provided for normal development. [Said relative of mine, for instance, is beginning to develop an optional American accent, from watching cartoons... kids aren't idiots, they're remarkably observant]


Cecily Thanks, Wastrel. What a delightfully opaque phrase, "As someone who currently has a five-year-old relative". I have had five-year-old relatives in the past, and indeed a five-year-old child of my own. They're all different, of course, but as you say, observant of nuance, and eager to learn language.


message 35: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel All different, of course - mine is probably currently ahead of the curve on language skills... on the other hand, for a very long time she was a long way behind the curve (very late speaking is a trait within our family, apparently). But the general point is that I think people tend to underestimate (forget!) how quickly children learn language. People complain a lot about precocious child characters in fiction, but in terms of language skills I think it's far, far more common to find children on the page who speak much younger than they're meant to be...


message 36: by Shaun (last edited Aug 13, 2015 04:19AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Shaun Wastrel wrote: "All different, of course - mine is probably currently ahead of the curve on language skills... on the other hand, for a very long time she was a long way behind the curve (very late speaking is a t..."

I have four kids (ages 12-7) and I agree that they all develop differently. But I think the problem with this particular kid is he supposedly developed in a bubble. Personally, I would imagine that that might significantly impair his ability to learn and/or use language, especially since the mother supposedly limited the amount of TV he watched.

I know in a similar real-life account where there were several kids, the kids developed their own way of communicating that didn't involve traditional words or words at all.

But beyond the actual words and ability to form sentences comes the ability to form complex thoughts and evaluate a situation accurately, which is impaired due to an extreme lack of perspective and greatly depend on the child and their experiences in the "real world." This child is hopelessly naïve. And though the reader can figure it out...I think it limited the narrative.

I also found the voice inconsistent (sometimes extremely sophisticated-other times almost infantile). But as an adult, it's hard to get back into the mind-frame of a young child...even harder to imagine how that mind-frame would be different for a child who grew up in an environment completely devoid of "normal" stimuli.

Personally, I feel as if this would have been better had she chosen a different POV, or even third person POV. But apparently a lot of people disagreed as they loved this book.


Cecily Wastrel wrote: "very late speaking is a trait within our family, apparently"

Sometimes those who start late (not just with language, but with other core skills too) take off quicker once they start.


Cecily Shaun wrote: "I have four kids (ages 12-7) and I agree that they all develop differently."

It must be fascinating to compare, but they must keep you very busy.

Shaun wrote: "Personally, I feel as if this would have been better had she chosen a different POV, or even third person POV. But apparently a lot of people disagreed as they loved this book."

The main advantage of Jack narrating (apart from supposed cuteness) is that it avoids the need to get too graphic about anything, because he either doesn't know or doesn't understand. The disadvantage is that, for me, she didn't make him believable.


Shaun Cecily wrote: "The main advantage of Jack narrating (apart from supposed cuteness) is that it avoids the need to get too graphic about anything, because he either doesn't know or doesn't understand. The disadvantage is that, for me, she didn't make him believable.
"


Good point.


message 40: by [deleted user] (new)

A great review there. You spotted the inconsistencies with the narrator well. Never liked Jack personally.


Cecily Thanks Shaun and Sidharth.

It feels harsh not to like a child victim, but I guess I didn't, or at least, not the way Donoghue wrote him. I felt great sympathy, and I admired him and Ma, but liking is different.


message 42: by Dolors (last edited Feb 11, 2016 11:59PM) (new)

Dolors The unconvincing voice of the young voice reminds me of Oskar in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close but Foer's book deals with less traumatic events. What a pity that this novel wasn't better executed, as there seems to be potentiality in the psychological portrait of the characters and the disquieting dilemmas it arises.


message 43: by Samadrita (new)

Samadrita Excellent dissection of themes and execution, Cecily. I have so far been disinclined to delve into this especially because very few GR friends have rated this highly but after Brie Larson got an Oscar nomination for playing the role of the mother I'm a little more interested.


message 44: by [deleted user] (new)

A spot on review Cecily, I felt the exact same way with regards to the writing. I think it's a difficult one because the voice is that of a child so I'm not sure how much of the literary style was sacrificed by choosing this medium of expression. I'm also intrigued to see the film and think in certain cases, the film is far superior to the book (I found this with 'Gone Girl'). Sometimes though, the book has an unredeemingly unrealistic plot which means that even with great directors, actors and cinematography, it falls flat.


message 45: by Tsung (new)

Tsung Thanks for another epic review Cecily. Albeit from 3 years ago. I kept seeing this book in the store. Now I know I'll skip it.


HBalikov Use of language is always important, Cecily. Thanks for giving us an excellent dissection.


Cecily Dolors wrote: "The unconvincing voice of the young voice reminds me of Oskar in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close but Foer's book deals with less traumatic events...."

JSF was on my radar as someone I really ought to read, but after various discussions comparing his work with that of his wife's, I'm a little less keen, which is most unfair (and if the genders were reversed, might even seem outrageous).


Cecily Samadrita wrote: "Excellent dissection of themes and execution, Cecily. I have so far been disinclined to delve into this especially because very few GR friends have rated this highly but after Brie Larson got an Oscar nomination..."

Thanks, Samadrita. I can't recommend the book (though many think it's wonderful), but the film sounds worth a punt. After that, you may find you have no need to read the book anyway.


Cecily Tsung Wei wrote: "Thanks for another epic review Cecily. Albeit from 3 years ago. I kept seeing this book in the store. Now I know I'll skip it."

I wrote the main review three years ago, but I just updated it because of the pressure to see the film. If I do see the film, I guess I will update this yet again.


Cecily Hannah wrote: "A spot on review Cecily, I felt the exact same way with regards to the writing... Sometimes though, the book has an unredeemingly unrealistic plot which means that even with great directors, actors and cinematography, it falls flat. "

Thanks. I see I've already liked your excellent and very fair review - and not only because I agree with it!


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