“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 look down at Rug with her red and brown and black all zigging around each other. There’s the stain I spilled by mistake getting born.”
Meet Jack, the protagonist and narrator of Room. Jack has spent his entire life in Room, an eleven-by-eleven foot space with no windows except for a small skylight. He lives there with his best friend, caretaker, and parent—Ma. Along with Bed, Wardrobe, and Rug, they have a short table and chairs, a tiny kitchenette, and a small bathroom. For entertainment, there is a television set and limited selection of nine books. It is an existence that seems utterly claustrophobic and absolutely maddening, a situation ridden with despair.
Yet for Jack, Room is not a hateful place. For Jack, Room is home.
Haunting and inventive, Emma Donoghue’s best-selling Room details the life circumstances of young Jack and his mother, Ma, as they cope with their demoralizing confinement. The Irish-Canadian author of contemporary and historical fiction previously penned Slammerkin (2000), The Sealed Letter (2008), Landing (2009), Life Mask (2004), and Hood (1995). Room is her eleventh book and winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize regional prize for the Caribbean and Canada.
This fast-paced story unfolds from the eyes of a child—a challenging lens to capture but one that Donoghue conjures convincingly and memorably. Jack is smart and kind and eager to learn about the world. His keen observations help advance the plot and bring light to what would otherwise be a very dark subject. His voice is charming, his fate gripping—making this a novel that is impossible to put down.
In many ways, Jack is not unlike any five-year-old boy: he loves Dora the Explorer, his favorite book is Dylan the Digger, his energy is boundless and imagination limitless. But Jack differs in his perception of the world. Because Room is his world, he believes that everything he’s not witnessed is simply made up. To Jack, dogs aren’t real, but Spider is. He thinks, “Vegetables are all real but ice cream is TV, I wish it was real too” (20). The book points profoundly to the weight of nurture in one’s construction of reality: even though he could not leave Room if he wanted to, Jack does not perceive that as an issue. When Ma hints that their captivity is causing harm, Jack replies:
“Room’s not small. Look.” I climb up on my chair and jump with my arms out and spin, I don’t bang into anything.
“You don’t even know what it’s doing to you.” Her voice is shaky. “You need to see things, touch things…”(113–4).
Hidden from the light of the real world, Jack’s development is suffering.
He and Ma lead a mostly solitary existence in Room; there is one visitor, but he comes when Jack is asleep. Between physical education, orchestra, rhymes, reading, and songs, Ma creatively engages her son with “thousands” of things throughout the day, being sure to limit television time so it doesn’t “rot (their) brains.” With ritual and routines that are distinctively theirs, Donoghue describes the pair as a “lost tribe of two” (Landau 2010), a mother and son bound together ever so tightly.
Donoghue has compared her portrayal of motherhood in Room with Cormack McCarthy’s portrayal of fatherhood in The Road: “Both of us are trying to make something epic out of parenthood, the most life-changing event we experience. Him, father and son alone in the wilderness; me, mother and child enclosed, a pregnancy enlarged” (Bethune 2010).
This idea helps us sympathize with Ma’s plight. Her sole identity as a mother is consuming and confining, elevated by current circumstances, but at the same time it is a role that Ma fills with all her heart, a role that provides a sense of purpose for her that is ultimately transformative and freeing. Previously, she was only a captive, with a life void of meaning. Although still a prisoner, Ma’s life gained a new sense of meaning as soon as she had Jack.
At one point, Jack questions Ma’s directions, and “nearly roaring” she responds, “I’m your mother. That means I have to choose for both of us” (115). This turns out to be an important turning point in the book.
Donoghue’s first inkling of Room was sparked by the horrific, true tale of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who imprisoned and impregnated his daughter and kept her captive in his building basement for several years. This has put the author under much fire from critics. Some, like Jane Hunt, have gone so far as to call the work unethical and distasteful for “simultaneously denying, appropriating and manipulating other people’s lives and truths” (Hunt 2010).
Responding to those critics, Donoghue says, “I realized now that if your book gets attached to any notorious names, you can never shake them off.... all I borrowed from the Fritzl case was the notion of a woman who bears a child to her captor and manages to protect his childhood” (“An Interview…” 2010).
At once grotesque and weirdly fascinating, narratives of confinement cut into our hearts and engender in us a fierce desire for justice. At their core, perhaps these stories are so absorbing because of the issues of morality they dredge up inside of us. How could someone confine another person in such horrible conditions? It is an issue that dances at the edges of Room, and it is unnerving. Those who question Donoghue’s motives might also note that she does not delve into the backstory of the novel’s captor.
I choose to view Room as a story that reminds us of a darkness that persists in our world, and more importantly, of the triumphs of love and righteousness. Although they are not overtly religious, Ma and Jack have faith in the goodness of the universe.
When Jack asks his mother why they thank Baby Jesus rather than the man who brings them food (their captor), she says, “He’s only the bringer. He doesn’t actually make the wheat grow in the field. He can’t make the sun shine on it, or the rain fall, or anything” (45).
Ma’s belief (or appearance of) belief in a God who provides is important. The knowledge that “God’s bright face” visits Jack and Ma in the form of sunshine from the skylight, praying that God be their shepherd, helps Ma bear a weight that seems unbearable.
Ma’s resilience and her strong love for Jack—the world she creates in Room, her educating her son to the best of her ability, their tightknit bond—is what is most affecting about this story. Donoghue is artful in her construction of character through a limited narrator’s eyes; she invites us in to a mother-son relationship that is so achingly close, we are left with a deeper understanding of devotion than what we once had. It is a relationship that brings light to a room that would otherwise be covered in darkness.
Erin Dalpini works in Chicago as Associate Director for Resource Development Communications at Fourth Presbyterian Church.
“An Interview with Emma Donoghue.” In Back Bay Readers’ Pick, Reading Group Guide to Room, A Novel by Emma Donoghue. Boston: Back Bay Publishing, 2011.
Bethune, Brian. “Emma Donohgue’s Room without a View.” McLean’s (September 2010).
Hunt, Jane. “Childish Whimsy is Tainted by Depravity.” The Australian (August 2010).
Landau, Emily. “Living Room” The Walrus Magazine (25 October 25 2010).