Saturday, 15 January 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue: Review

By Emma Donoghue
Published in 2010
Published by Picador
ISBN: 978-0-330-51992-2

I was given this book as a gift from my fantastic husband and I was not paid for this review.

The Josef Fritzl case shocked anyone who heard about it. A father who had locked away his teenaged daughter in a custom built apartment in the basement of the family home and used her as a sex slave. She fell pregnant 8 times, although she lost two: one to miscarriage and one to respiratory disease. Her twenty four year ordeal all came to light in 2008 and I guess it's fair to say that a lot of us had been watching and waiting for some kind of literary response to this, a way of making sense of the darkness and the horror.

Although Donoghue's books is inspired by the events of the Fritzl case, she wisely steers away from replicating the exact circumstances. The captor is not the father, they are not kept in a basement and there is only one child, Jack. And it's Jack who is the focus of this novel. He is five years old and has never been outside of Room, the modified garden shed in which they are held. In fact he has no concept of the outside world as his mother has chosen to not explain it. He thinks the entire world consists of this room, that the television channels are different planets orbiting the room and that his mother's captor, Old Nick, is the supplier of all things. However, as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that they need to escape. Jack's mother (Ma) realises that Old Nick is capable of far worse than holding them here for the rest of their lives and hatches a plan with the help of Jack to get out.

This book captivated, repulsed and inspired me. All at the same time, all the way through. It's a car crash story - you can't stand it but you can't look away and all the time you have the knowledge that something like this really happened... it's creepy. The character of Jack is a completely believable portrayal, not only  of a five year old child but of a five year old who has no concept of the outside world. His language reflects his worldview as he doesn't use any articles, such as 'the'. Room isn't 'the room' because to his knowledge there are no other rooms and so since there is only one, then there is no grammatical need to use articles. So everything is just Bed, Wardrobe, Skylight - capitalised as if there were only one of them like there is only one of Jack.

The part of this story that intrigued me the most was the relationship between Ma and Jack. As I'm now in the age range where a good portion of my friends are now becoming parents, I regularly hear that all parents need 'time off' to get some space away from the kids and to just relax - something I completely agree with - but imagine being in one small room with your child, 24/7 for years. Under these circumstances. The way in which Ma interacts with Jack, teaching him stories, making sure he gets daily exercise and love is one of the most moving things about this book. I don't know if it's just because I'm around the same age as her character or if it's because I'm starting to think more seriously about becoming a mother myself but I just couldn't help but wonder what on earth I would have done in her position. I have no idea and thank God I won't have to find out.

I'd wanted to read this book ever since the 2010 Booker prize longlist came out and I heard about it on the Guardian Books Podcast. I was pretty disappointed when it didn't win but it's safe to say that this is a book that is hugely successful and deservedly so. It gives you so much to think about and genuinely changes your perspective on the world by giving you the opportunity to see life through the eyes of Jack. This was one of top three books I read in 2010 - I really can't recommend it any more highly.

Have you read Room? What did you think of it?

Related links:
Guardian Books Podcast about this book with interview with Emma Donoghue
Once upon a life: Emma Donoghue
The Official Emma Donoghue website
An extract from Room

Photo credit: Sarah Lee for the Guardian


  1. I did read this book and loved it - LOVED it. Like you I was at times horrified but could not stop reading.

  2. Hi Sheila! Thanks for the comment! Yeah, I think the worst part for me was the part in the back of the truck. Amazing writing.

  3. I haven't read this yet but hope to get it from my mom soon. It's so nice to read a book that lives up to the hype, isn't it?

  4. I can't wait to read this one. It's on my list and I'm hoping I get to it this year. It sounds fantastic.

  5. This story was, of course, a difficult one to read--yet impossible to not read. It is extremely disturbing to acknowledge that this really does happen in our world. The subject matter is a whole different review for me. What I found to be brilliant was the viewpoint of the author. Jack said and did things that were so endearing that I laughed and cried at the same time. The author was exactly where she should have been in this little boy's thought process. As I read, I experienced his wonder as he experienced Outside, and I was heartbroken along with him as he learned the realities of our society. Makes you think twice about teaching your children what's important.