I’ve passed by this book on the shelf several times before I finally decided to buy it the other week. I’m not entirely sure why – probably the fact that I am particularly bad with stressful books, and the UK cover looked to me like a thriller – the red font, the child in the background who looks so much like a victim. The US cover to me boasts more of the heartwarming nature that the book in fact contains. For me, therefore, this was a 401-page lesson in judging a book by its cover.
Yet sometimes it’s one of the only ways – bookshops offer such a massive choice – and I never settled on this one before. Covers and blurbs give a brief picture of what we’ll find inside the covers. Room has particularly little on the back cover –
Jack is five.
He lives in a single, locked room with his Ma.
Why did I eventually settle on this from a vast choice? A combination of factors – foremost the desire to read something new, and a prompting reference in one of my favourite magazines; Amanda Craig’s article in the latest Mslexia, questioning ‘Has feisty gone out of fashion?’ really interested me as a writer and a reader, and I was pleased to see her list of choice feminist fiction included (I’m always looking for suggestions!). Right at the bottom of the list – ‘Room by Emma Donoghue’. Later on the day the new Mslexia landed on my doormat, I was browsing in a local bookshop, and that strange thing happened again, where a book put itself in my hand and led me to the counter…
So, why do I love this book?
From the moment I picked it up, I was entirely entranced by the voice of five-year-old Jack. The entire novel is narrated beautifully and distinctively by him, and from the beginning it took my breath away. The book is a fantastic argument for and proof of the fact that whatever story you are telling, a strong, individual narrative voice will do wonders.
Having been brought up entirely within Room, an 11-by-11-foot space lined with cork tiles, Jack believes it to be the extent of existence, and what he sees in TV to be stories. Because of his captivity, he has a specific vernacular – the possessions that to his Ma are a bed, a wardrobe, a rug, a table, to Jack they are the only ones, and so he calls them by their names – Bed, Wardrobe, Rug, Table. The first lines immerse us so strongly in Jack’s world, that we do not want to step out again: I read the book in two days, stopping occasionally (by extreme willpower) to absorb what had gone so far. I wanted to inhale it, soak it up all at once just to marvel. The first line sinks us into the child’s voice and perspective, and we just don’t want to look back:
Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.
I am especially impressed with this book, since for a large part of it the only characters are Jack, Ma and the shadowy figure of their captor. Carrying a story set in such a confined space, with such a limited cast, would be a challenge for any lesser writer that quickly became stale, but Donoghue plays just the right balance between the strange, the routine, the horrific. The innocent voice of the child shields us from the painful details of his mother’s captivity – and yet we can interpret what he knows and understand it, such as when (spoiler alert) he is trying to sleep in Wardrobe and counts the creaks of the bed where Ma and Old Nick (their jailer) are – we know what part of the routine of captivity is happening here, but since Jack merely thinks of them as creaks, since his Ma so fiercely protects him from his father, we are allowed to see this part of her suffering through a different lens than we usually would. (spoiler over). If the narrative starts to feel claustorophobic at times we cannot complain: the prose merely takes the shape of the characters’ existence compared to ours, without becoming boring or dull.
Donoghue has said that she wrote the book after the case of Fritzl came to light in 2008, the father who kept his daughter imprisoned for 24 years in a concealed part of the family basement without the knowledge of his wife, repeatedly raping her and producing seven children. She takes the concept and perfectly situates us within it; since the news of three women also recently escaped from imprisonment in Cleveland, Ohio, broke just a few weeks ago, a tale like this is so relevant to us.
The thing that makes this book so incredibly admirable is the range of what it leaves you with. I felt like there were a huge array of things the book does magnificently, but I can only talk about a few of them here. So, I’ll summarise here two big reasons you should read it…
(Warning: the rest of this review contains scattered spoilers; I really don’t want to ruin it for you, so you might want to read it after the book!)
- The relationship between mother and son. Since Jack has lived his entire life with only his Ma for company, the relationship between them is beautifully strong. The evolving nature of his trust in her as he learns about the existence of a world outside room, and slowly gains some independence after their escape, beginning to trust other people, learning to understand the she has another name as well as Ma, being separated from her while she is ill. Even parts of their exchange that initially might make us uncomfortable or surprise us, such as the fact that he is still breastfed, Their relationship can only be described as beautiful.
- The look at ourselves. The media treatment of the pair after their escape, including the interview, really make us look at ourselves and how we pore over these cases in the news, creating the demand that makes journalists push for exclusive stories. The interview pulls at the heartstrings from every angle; the confusion of Jack, the anger of Ma, the fake smile of the interviewer.
- Realising what we take for granted. The way that Jack behaves once free makes us realise exactly why sheltering children can be dangerous, in exaggerated form – his fear of wind, rain, the glasses he must wear to help his eyes that aren’t used to looking so far away… the psychological revulsion of other people touching him, the not understanding of social etiquette – the things he has to learn are endless.
At the end of the day, the reason I picked the book up was a reccommendation on the grounds of feminism – and while, the book does have a feminist point, I really feel like on the whole it is not about the treatment of women but the treatment of people. This book tells us, unequivocally, that nobody is the property of anyone else, and acting as though they are is damaging – Ma is not the propety of Old Nick, but loses seven years of her life to his delusion that she is; Jack is not the property of Old Nick either, obviously, but more importantly not of his Ma, even though Jack wants to think so. The journey of the book (spoilers) becomes a gradual slight separation from him: although in captivity she has the make him feel that he is hers, to be sure he feels safe, once Outside she has to loosen the bonds gently, so that they can both function. We see how even viewing others as someone else’s is damaging in the way Jack’s grandfather treats him – he has trouble even looking at Jack without thinking of the man who stole and violated his daughter. We realise how important unconditional love is when his grandmother’s new husband, Steppa, is able to treat him with more understanding than those related to him by blood – as he attaches no expectation or judgement to him. He has no history to change how he feels – he just approaches the situation, and reacts as best he can.
Room made me feel a whole spectrum of emotion, and interested me in ways I hadn’t expected, made me question things I’d never thought about, and made me so glad that I got over what I’d thought about the cover. It is a traumatising situation that it deals with; it takes very serious and upsetting issues into the spotlight, and yet deals with them so majestically, that all we are left with is love.
Have you read ‘Room’, or do you want to? What did you think about it? Have you ever erroneously judged a book by its cover? Do you feel that feminist fiction is important in today’s society? Let me know what you think in the comments, or use the Contact page to get in touch.
Mslexia article by Amanda Craig from pp.8-11 of Issue 58 (Jun/Jul/Aug 2013). Find out more about the magazine (for women who write) at http://www.mslexia.co.uk
Next Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Saturday 29th June 2013