“I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
– Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Emma Donoghue’s emotional and profound narrative of ‘Room’, told in the voice of a five year old boy who has lived with his mother in an eleven-foot-by-eleven-foot room his whole life, is no easy reading at times. Jack is shown as a normal child, a curious, happy and loving young boy whose whole world consists of himself, his mother, the shadowy, background character “Old Nick” and the four walls which make up his universe. Plunged into Jack and his Ma’s world from the very first page, the readers quickly discern the bleak reality of their situation, even as the protagonist himself remains blissfully oblivious. This is a brave concept which Donoghue handles sensitively: the innocent narrative revealing the horrific truth of a young woman who has been abducted and raped by her captor for a seven-year period, resulting in a son and a whole new life to cope with.
We are admitted to a very private world, in which we see this unusual situation through the eyes of a child, and how he has created a lively world for himself, giving names and personalities to inanimate objects. Everything around him becomes part of his family: Plant, Door, Rug, Meltedy Spoon and many more, so that at no times does Jack ever appear to be lonely. This subtle process of substitution shows how Jack unconsciously compensates for the lack of society in his world, yet this is done in such a loving way, with their own codes of language and relationships (“Stroke Table’s scratches to make them better”), we are left with an endearing self-involved character which is shown as completely natural for a young child.
Throughout the novel, Donoghue also portrays an almost musical, poetic way of viewing the world, using symbolism and storytelling as a writing technique. The Sun is described as being “God’s face”, and similarly “God’s silver face” (the moon), which could be interpreted as powerful metaphor to show how the characters try to gain control of their lives. The renaming of objects in their world using the poetic, sweet voice of a child almost echoes the primitiveness of their situation, as if they are having to start again. There is a constant stream of storytelling and riddles from Ma, which is incorporated in bring up Jack (“run, run, run like GingerJack), perhaps showing the importance of these stories in their lives, yet also brings a sense of the unreal to their situation.
Jack’s belief that nothing on TV is real, however, shows the shocking reality of how much he has been both hidden away from the outside world, as well as how much has been shield from him. His assertion of many facts such as “dogs are only TV” displays a thought process which has been implemented by his Ma – that the real world is just an elaborate fantasy – shows process of coping with being shut off. Through this ongoing theme of the concept of what is real, the author also successfully highlights their isolation. Jack’s take on various aspects of life such as being “switched off” to signify his consciousness show an innocent and odd mix to adult words and ideas being interpreted by a child. Even ‘Old Nick’ is renamed, their shadowy captor, and is shown as representative of the generic ‘Bogeyman’ that “comes in the night”, showing how the fact that Jack has hardly even seen him makes his existence feel less real.
Despite their dire circumstances, however, it is apparent that Jack is very well looked after by his mother, showing himself to be intelligent, and having advanced literacy and numeracy skills. He is educated by both his mother and the TV, and shows the firm, innocent belief that his mum is seen as the wisest: “Ma knows everything”. We see how Ma’s attempts to create some kind of routine and normality in their lives through her own education, such as “Phys Ed.” and ‘riddles’. However, there are other parts of Jack’s routines, such as “scream time at 3pm” (a ‘game’ in which they scream towards the skylight to attract any attention) which reveal to us his mother’s thoughts and intentions to escape – while Jack sees this as part of life, the readers are able to see the reason behind this. In this way the author cleverly makes the readers feel complicit in their situation, as they read in-between the lines.
It is impossible to show the power of this novel without also mentioning the character’s sense of dislocation soon after their very harrowing, tense scenes of escape (apologies for the spoiler), frantic scenes which in themselves engross the reader in their dramatic urgency. The fact that Jack wants to go back to Room once he is ‘rescued’ but is unable to understand that he cannot, sums up a heartbreaking dilemma which he cannot reconciliate with his mother’s pain. His internal belief that “In room I was safe and Outside was is the scary” only shows a different type of anxiety: that of having to struggle with several different outside forces. The fact that he has to undergo a process of “unlying” in order to make sense of this new world compared to his earlier truths show that Jack tries to follow a logical, albeit still child-like, rules to follow in order to comprehend.
There is a significant recurrence of quotes and comparison to Lewis Carroll’s Alice (from Wonderland) and her questions of ‘self’, which relates to Jack’s changing identity and his own interpretation of the world. There are several layers of questions which force the reader to look at Jack’s own reality and self, as well as his idea of what is real. Prompting philosophical style ideas (“Is Room still there when we’re not?”), Jack shows his struggle between seeing things physically in order to believe them, and following the logic that is given to him by his wise Ma and the outside world.
All in all, it is clear that this novel is heavily influenced by case of Joseph Fritzl and his daughter Elisabeth Fritzl, and this is something that the author has said herself which inspired her for this book. Donoghue is never as arrogant to assume that this novel will help readers to relate to Ma’s pain and suffering, and indeed this is probably why there are not much specific details in reference to her seven-year period. Rather, Donoghue successfully garners the more universal concept of love and friendship in mother and child’s relationship (“I belong to Ma”), thus concluding that it is better to focus on the positive aspects of human nature rather than the horrifying sides of their ordeal. There is still humour in this gripping novel which also helps lighten the tone of the novel (“Princess Diana? Should have worn a seatbelt”), peppering it with Jack’s child-like straightforward voice whch is captured so well. With reference to popular culture ( “book of faces”, “Google”, “Skype”), Donoghue shows an interesting new perspective in this current world of technology and media, without managing to sound patronising. This novel is not just about how the characters have suffered, but rather how they must move on and cope with the immense attention from the outside world. This is a unique and well-written story, and at times has scenes which may be upsetting due to the stifling atmosphere and the depressing content, yet it always continues with a strand of optimism. Just as Jack struggles to integrate in a new world, both he and the readers find hope in the way that he tries to find his own place with his Ma in this same new world, leaving readers with the idea of moving forward into the light, and away from the darkness that is in Room.
Emma Donoghue, Room (Picador: London 2010) pp.322 £12.99