Great stories tend to involve either nail biting tension, beautiful language or a plot so profound it moves the reader to tears.
Rarely do you find a novel that delivers all three, but Emma Donoghue’s Room manages to do so – and with surprising originality.
The story is told through the eyes of five-year-old Jack, who lives with Ma in a place with a locked door and a skylight, which he knows only as Room. For Jack, Room (and everything in it) is his entire universe. He has no understanding there is a reality outside of what he has experienced – or of a world outside Room.
Room is similar to John Boyne’s The Boy In The Striped Pajamas in that readers understand far more about what’s going on than the narrative character.
We know very early on that Ma has been held prisoner by a man we know only as Old Nick, and Jack is the product of her imprisonment. And she has protected her son by reinventing their existence so it seems perfectly safe and normal to Jack.
But when circumstances force Ma to reveal the truth, she can’t help but turn that world upside down if they are to have any chance of a different future.
It’s not giving too much away to say that Ma and Jack must come up with a plan to escape. And the planning and execution of their plot make for the most intense and stressful 100 pages of a novel I’ve ever read.
Seriously. I was reading this section of the book during my lunch break on a particularly stressful day at work and went back to the office more wound up than before I left! It’s unbearably tense, mostly because of Jack’s innocence and courage, and what’s at stake for both he and Ma.
It’s the deep love between Jack and Ma that drives this story (much the same way Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is driven by the relationship between the Man and the Boy).
The idea of a woman and child being kept prisoner in a suburban fortress is not original – an alarming number of these sorts of unspeakable stories seem to feature in the news each year. Yet Donoghue has found an original perspective from which to tell it: that of a five-year-old.
Through Jack’s eyes, Room is not a place of horror. It’s his world and he’s comfortable in it. He is a true innocent. So when Ma must finally risk telling him about the real world, she has to do so using the language and world view Jack is familiar with.
Jack is a sweet and intelligent boy. He’s also completely – and unknowingly – institutionalised. So when change comes he faces his own existential crises. As does Ma, who learns freedom is never simple.
Although Room is somewhat of a tense journey, it is a surprisingly gentle story with a truly beautiful message. It asks questions about truth and reality, and the nature of sacrificial love, and does so without sentimentality.
My tears at the end of this book were not because it broke my heart, but because it moved me as only great stories can. Room is a profound novel, and I know it’s another of those stories that’s going to stay with me for a very long time.
(As an aside: Ma and Jack live in a truly sustainable way inside Room. They only receive deliveries from Old Nick once a week, so must re-use and recycle virtually every single item that comes into Room. It’s quite fascinating to see how much can be done with so little when there's no other choice…)