The last reading for our book club this spring was Emma Donoghue’s Room (2010). The novel was shortlisted for both Man Booker and Orange prizes and it was adapted into an award-winning movie in 2015. Donoghue is an Irish-born writer, living in Canada. Room is her seventh novel.
From page one Room holds its reader tight. Part of this is due to the irresistibly honest narrator: a five-year-old Jack, a smart and tender boy who lives with his Ma. They have a routine for each day: bath, breakfast, TV, exercise, lunch, nap, scream… They sing songs and tell stories, they play with language and invent word sandwiches. They build a long snake of empty eggshells that lives under their bed. They live in a room that measures 11 feet by 11 feet. Room is Jack’s whole world, all he has ever known.
The real things in Jack’s world are all one of their kind: Bed, Bath, Sink, Stove, Rug, Table. Many other things are only in TV: girls, boys, grass, sand, ocean. Apart from him and his Ma, the only other real person in the world of Jack is Old Nick. Jack is afraid of Old Nick but has never seen him. Old Nick comes in the night, at nine pm sharp and Jack is hidden in Wardrobe. He listens to his Ma and Old Nick talk. He listens to Old Nick make the bed screak. Then the door beebs and it is only him and Ma again.
Being a mother to a five-year-old myself, I was not very happy to open this book. The thought of a child in the setting of this novel, the dark actual circumstances looming behind the imaginary childish world of Jack felt too much to take in. Especially since, while Room is fiction, we have heard too many similar stories from the real life.
In our book club meeting I learned that I was not the only one having avoided this book at first. Some of us had lost their sleep for a night because of the novel. I was one of them but at that point it was simply because I could not stop reading. As the story proceeded, it appeared that Room was much more than its horrific setting. Actually, the setting was only the background of the essential story.
Room states that the value of having someone to look after can help one survive even in the unspeakable conditions. Ma creates a routine of life for her child in the conditions that she has to offer. When Jack grows, she creates the whole world for him. What could had she done otherwise?
On several levels having Jack saves her. He gives her life a meaning, a reason to survive from day to day. He keeps her remembering rhymes and songs from her own childhood, he makes her read books and create stories, he makes her cook and eat vitamins, bath and take care of them both. He makes her live instead of just be there and wait for nothing.
Room is also a story of the love of a son to his mother, a story of growing up. In the beginning, Jack lives in a sort of prolongated state of an unborn child. He and his mother live in an almost symbiotic relationship; they are never apart from each other and they do everything together. However, it becomes inevitable that in time Jack has to find ways to live in separation, too. Their umbilical cord lasts unusually long but finally, like every newborn, also Jack has to learn to breath on his own.
There is a profound difference between the worldviews of the mother and her son. To Ma they are captives willing to be free again; to Jack nothing besides Room even exists. Even though Jack is deprived of the outer world, he never knows he is missing something. He has everything he needs: his Ma and their well-routined life and things. As a professional of child education in our group pointed out – if you only look at Jack, he also benefits of their situation. His mother is always there for him, he has safe routines and lots of stability in his life. Being a small boy, what has he to long for?
While in the beginning of the novel the main characters’ routined life runs somewhat stable, it seems unavoidable that Jack is growing up and asking more questions. He is curious to know more of the world and suddenly his Ma starts to give in. Jack is both incredulous and intrigued. And as with all life changing knowledge, sometimes the opening new world becomes overwhelming. Jack eventually starts longing to go back to what he knows as normal. But once we have expanded our knowledge, there is no going back. Life only moves forwards.
Room makes us realise once again how different is the perspective of children from their parents. While adults make decisions of how to live their lives and in what realities, children only see and know what we show them. We choose their realities for them for many years before they are ready to start choosing for themselves. Thus, in some ways, like Ma, every parent creates the world to her/his children.
While usually it does not happen on such ultimate level as in this novel, yet, we all have our own Room in which we grow our children. If we are lucky enough to live in a peaceful, stable environment, we have freely chosen the books, songs, food, TV programmes, social, physical and intellectual skills we have wanted to introduce to our children. But the main skill of a parent is to open the door when the child is ready to start finding his/her own ways; it is our duty to answer even in the most difficult questions.
Because of the child narrator, the novel is easily read with not too many big words. Donoghue is skillful in using a child’s voice. While Jack is believable as a five-year-old, having him as the witness does not over-simplify the events of the novel, nor their meaning. The intensity or credibility of the story are not affected. In a sense the voice and perspective of a child make the story in such tragic setting somewhat lighter. There is always hope for those who trust in the life itself.
I highly recommend the novel. When you open the door to Room, it stays with you for a long while.