Over the Christmas break, I read the novel Room.
If you’ve heard about Room in the press, or happened across some “best of” lists with brief reviews, you can probably understand why a few of my friends questioned the wisdom of diving into this new work by Emma Donoghue—especially during the “most wonderful time of the year.”
On the surface, the book sounds dark and depressing; obviously, Donoghue had to go to a dark place to write this. But our world is full of darkness, and one job of art is to illuminate this darkness in order to discover what it might say about our world and the human condition.
Five-year-old Jack is the protagonist, hero and narrator of the tale. The reader discovers very early that this intelligent and imaginative young boy is confined to a small room along with his mother, Ma. In fact, Jack was born in this 12-foot-square room, and he has never seen the outside world, since the only “window” is a high skylight. Ma has made a decision to make Jack’s whole world this room, telling him the people, animals and things he sees on television or reads about in books are not real—they’re just “pretend” things. Other than Ma and himself, the only other real things are Old Nick, the sinister man who occasionally visits in the night, and the food and other items Old Nick brings into the room.
When Jack makes a discovery soon after his fifth birthday, Ma decides to tell Jack the truth about their predicament, the truth about this fortified prison, and the truth about the outside world—truths Jack finds hard to believe. She also solicits Jack’s help in a do-or-die plan of escape, for Old Nick is suffering from the recession. He’s lost his job and is having trouble paying bills. Ma knows she and her son will never be left to live if Old Nick’s home reaches foreclosure.
I won’t give any other particulars away—there’s so much more to discover in this book—but I will tell you that Room is ultimately a life-affirming work. It’s a celebration of the love between mother and child, and a celebration of the resiliency of the human spirit—especially the spirit of a child who has been given the love, support, and nourishment every child needs.
While there are many tears in Room, this can be a funny book at times, and it is often a wise one. Jack’s observations of his world can make the reader chuckle, but they can also be oddly revealing, casting a new view on this tired and cruel old world.
If you decide to tackle Donoghue’s amazing book, know that Jack and Ma may linger with you long after you shut the door on this room.
A library for Ma and Jack by Emma Donoghue.
After you’ve read the book, visit What Jack Didn’t Know by Wendy Smith.
Room is packed with themes about parent/child relationships, child development, the concept of home, and so much more. It’s ideal for a book club discussion.