Book review: Room – Emma Donoghue

Posted on September 19, 2010 by


Jack lives in Room. He has lived in Room all his life, and he is about to turn five. He lives with his mother, a spider, a mouse, a plant and a series of inanimate objects, proper nouns with genders, that he clings to as if they were his friends: meltedy spoon, skylight, lamp and bed for example. For Jack, there has never been any other world than this world, and he is unaware of the horror of his situation that becomes obvious to the reader.  Jack misinterprets his mothers’ responses to their world that an adult reader immediately understands.

Jack sleeps most nights in wardrobe because Old Nick comes in to ‘squeak the bed’ and Ma doesn’t like Old Nick to set eyes on Jack.

When I describe this book to people, their eyes fill with horror and the usual reaction is ‘I don’t want to read something like that’. However the horror is placed on the back burner by the innocence of Jacks narration and the complex world he and his mother create together in order to, not just survive, but keep themselves sane and intellectually energetic. Ma is strict about television times and turning it off during commercials because they ‘rot the brain’. Together they ensure they get exercise despite of the size of the room they live in. Regardless of the limits of the potential of their day, the depth of narrative makes this book impossible to put down. That is the strength of the novel.

This is a book written entirely from the child’s perspective, but in a strongly unique way. Donoghue did a great deal of research into the lives of children in captivity and it shows. She has strong control of the voice never losing her grip for a second. Many readers have described the experience of feeling the presence of this novel long after they’d completed the book, and that was my reading experience also.

 There are times (a few too many for me) that the novel tips into the sentimental and it does over glorify the relationship between a mother a child. I found Ma to be just a little too strong.

I had the feeling that Emma Donoghue addresses certain imagined criticisms of the book in the book itself which I thought was curious. The reason I suggest these are imagined, is that the book deals with them just as they are raised in the reader’s mind. I get the feeling Donoghue intuited these problems (just as a reader does) and brushed them off – almost by poking fun at the reader.

One criticism is the world that Jack creates is so sweet and so innocent, the horror of their existence can be momentarily forgotten – so much so that at certain points the reader finds themselves considering the possibility that Jack is better off in Room. Donoghue has the main characters deal with this idea themselves, in a rather clumsy way, forcing the reader to take a kind of embarrassed look at their own imaginings. (I don’t want to go into detail about what incident deals with this, as it involves a spoiler)

Another imagined criticism semi dealt with is the existential / surreal question of what it is to be human when the world you can interact with is so small and unchanging. The entire philosophical aspect of this novel is dealt with in a very short scene, where the notion is ridiculed as if certain questions are simply not permitted to be asked.

For me, this reduces the stature of the novel. Rather than deal with what is happening to the reader as they engage so deeply with Ma and Jack, Donoghue almost makes fun the questions raised in the readers mind, forcing us to criticise the characters used to represent this questioning and to show only pity and empathy for Ma and Jack. This was a great shame. I really wanted the novel to go a little deeper and deal with these complex issues.  If they came up for Donoghue as she wrote they should be dealt with, not brushed off.

Having said that, I want to highly recommend the novel – It is definitely a fantastic read, and once started, you are compelled to finish. It’s always great to read something that you can’t put down.


Link to a floor plan of Room here.

Link to the New York Times review here.

Link to various reviews and interviews here.