Room – Emma Donoghue


Room is a short novel about the experience of a nameless young woman and her five year old son Jack living in a single room held captive by a man only referred to as Old Nick. Old Nick had abducted the woman on her way to college seven years previously.

The story is inspired by the spate of news reports of young women abducted and held as sexual hostages over the past few years like the case of Joseph Fritzl.

The twist to the novel is that it is narrated largely from the perspective of Jack. This was rather disconcerting for me as the author has created a very believable voice for him which at times sounded too much like my own five year old son, OMB. Jack has a mixture of the precocity and verbal dexterity that might come from having had such intense and consistent contact and constant communication with his bright mother, along with the skewed perspective of the world and reality that comes from having a world defined by the dimensions of a large shed.

The only glimpses of the outside world that the two of them get during their captivity are through a skylight and a small portable tv. However, as the physical world which Jack has direct experience of is so much more limited he is sceptical about the factual existence of anything beyond Room and the two adults. Without providing too much of a spoiler, the plot of the book involves the way in which the two manage to escape from Old Nick’s clutches and the second half of the book deals with their experiences outside Room. Interestingly for a book which is itself a fiction inspired by real life events, Jack wrestles with the idea of things which he had believed to be “TV” and hence unreal being actual things in the world outside Room.

However, the plot is not really the important thing in a book like this. The escape is written to be possible rather than particularly likely or plausible, albeit that it is difficult to think what would be the “normal” response of someone as abnormal as Old Nick to the set up for the escape. The more important and interesting aspects are the portrayal of Jack and his nameless mother’s navigation of the world outside Room, for one an alien world being experienced for the first time, for the other the real world that she had spent 7 years longing for. For both this results in the sort of mutual sensory overload and response played so well by Drew Barrymore in the scene in ET where she first meets ET.

It is a thought provoking book yet despite its harrowing subject-matter also often light and an easy read (I got through it in a couple of evenings after work). The book’s official promotional website is worth visiting for some more background to the writing of the book and the various inspirations for it. It carries on my trend of enjoying Booker Nominees more than winners as it lost out to The Finkler Question in 2010.

However, this is not a hard rule as I have also recently and very belatedly, finished Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America which was also shortlisted in 2010. Although Carey is one of my favourite authors and one of the few who has written more than one book that I have re-read, I have to admit that I found Parrot and Olivier to be an almost interminably long read. I suppose I only have myself to blame for not fully appreciating a fiction inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America when I had not read the book that inspired it. I’d like to have reviewed it, but sadly I don’t have enough more to say than that.

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3 thoughts on “Room – Emma Donoghue

    • I can see that in a strange way but suppose it’s one of the many paradoxes of such captivity. There’s a point where Old Nick tells his mother how lucky she is to be protected from the outside world, this is very poignant in retrospect given her difficulties adjusting back to it. All part of the messed up reality of the microcosm they are forced into.

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