CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 2 . . . . September 9, 2011
Emma Donoghue tells the story of five-year old Jack and his Ma, who are held captive in a 12 by 12 foot reinforced garden shed. Jack's Ma, whose name we never learn, was kidnapped at the age of 19, and Jack is the result of habitual rape by her captor. Readers meet the pair at a point when she has been a prisoner for seven years. What could have been a very dark tale is made readable and compelling because it is told through Jack's perspective and is, therefore, felt through him as well. It is Jack's voice which makes Room such a unique read.
Donoghue has nailed the thought process and speech patterns which make Jack so believable. Anyone who has spent any time with a five-year-old will hear the authenticity of his voice. He narrates the story in the first person. For example, when it's cold, he describes his mother's actions: "She gets out of Bed and goes to Thermostat to hot the air."
Because Jack has never known any life but the one in Room, he doesn't get that he is a prisoner, and he is a happy boy because of his mother's efforts to provide as normal a life as possible. In the first part of the book, readers get to know Jack and Ma by following their routine. Old Nick is almost a fringe character, experienced only as creaks and groans in the night, as Jack lays as still and as silent as possible in Wardrobe.
Jack, Ma, and Old Nick are not the only characters in Room. Each piece of furniture or object of significance is capitalized, and Jack refers to them as him or her. They are his friends. Bed and Rug and Table are as much parts of his life as a father or a grandparent would be. Watch tells him the time. TV shows him "other planets," but he believes that anything other than what is immediate, what is in Room, is make-believe. He doesn't have a concept of an outside world.
The parent-child bond is strong and beautiful in this story. Parents will understand the lengths Ma goes to, to protect Jack and to provide as healthy an upbringing for him as she can within such dire constraints. Jack is hurt when Ma implies she's not happy in Room – he feels as though he is not enough for her but should be. She's his whole world. Why isn't he hers? He doesn't want to leave Room, and cannot understand why Ma would want to.
It is this dichotomy, that one character understands the horror of their predicament while the other does not, that thrusts readers into the most suspenseful part of the book: the escape. Without giving away too much, it is safe to say that readers are not stuck in Room for the duration of the novel. It is also safe to say that it is the middle portion of the book that is a page turner. This reader found it nearly impossible to put down. One simply has to know what happens next.
It would have been easy for Donoghue to make this a thriller or an adventure story, ending with the escape. But how Ma re-integrates into society, and how Jack learns to function in a world larger than he ever imagined, is as interesting and heartening as getting to know them in Room.
What is fascinating about Room, aside from the story itself, is how you start to look at the world a little differently. In a culture where material possessions are highly valued as status symbols, what does it mean when you have very few? For Jack, they are not things; they are relationships. More philosophical readers will find themselves questioning what is real? What is normal? It is all about perspective. How would you see the world if you had a different upbringing?
Although Room was written as an adult novel, teens will get much out of it. Between the fear of a 19-year-old kidnap victim and a child trying to make sense of his world, many young adults may relate to, or empathize with, the characters. For those who don't, the suspense and slightly macabre voyeurism will be a strong draw.
Barb Janicek is a Children's Librarian with Kitchener Public Library, in Kitchener, ON. She is also a member of the committee which named Room as an Honour book for the 2011 Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book of the Year award.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.