Room by Emma Donoghue

RoomEmma Donoghue made a brave decision when she chose as the subject for her seventh novel Room, the seven-year imprisonment and sexual abuse of a young woman.  Donoghue was accused of sensationalism and voyeurism because of the affinity between her novel and the real life story of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian who held his daughter captive and sexually abused her for 24 years. She admitted that Room was triggered by the Fritzl scandal but firmly denied that her novel was in any way ‘based on’ that case.

What interested Emma Donoghue most was not the experience of the abuse or the confinement in a soundproofed garden shed but how the victim and the son Jack that is born as a result of rape, deal with the challenges of life outside.

This is the story told by Jack. He’s five years old, born in captivity, whose knowledge of the world is limited to the 12-foot-square room he occupies with his “Ma”. Their only contact with the world outside comes via their captor  “Old Nick”, who delivers their food, a weekly “Sundaytreat” (new trousers, painkillers, the occasional candy bar) before raping Ma. She uses every ounce of her energy on nurturing and teaching her child, creating rituals that help preserve her sanity. Theirs is a very private world, with its own language and cast of characters that Ma creates out of the sparse items in their room. “Melted Spoon”, “Rug”, “Wardrobe” and “Plant” become friends as real for Jack as the cartoon characters he loves to watch on TV. Ma limits his tv time though so his “brain doesn’t turn to mush” and makes him do “phys-ed” every morning which consists of running around the room and bouncing on the bed. In between they make up poems, sing Kylie songs and create a snake from old egg shells.

For Jack every day is a day of wide-eyed discovery and joy. Ma however can recall life “outside”.  Not surprisingly some days she just succumbs to despair, days when in Jack’s eyes she is “gone” and he is left to his own devices. Ma however is an exceptional woman, one whose love for her son gives her the courage to make a bid for freedom.

When the second half of the novel moves to “outside” it loses some of its intensity but gains a new dimension in which the close mother-son relationship is put the test as Jack has to share his mother with other people.  He has to learn that what was acceptable ‘inside” the room is not acceptable “outside” and to acquire skills he never needed before like tackling stairs and wearing shoes. Jack’s introduction to this confusing new world and to gradual removal of his previous dependency on his mother is handled with remarkable skill and insight.

While it was almost impossible not to shudder at the plight of this pair it was equally impossible not to be totally enthralled by Jack. It’s not easy inventing a credible child narrator but in Jack, Donaghue delivers one whose voice is so memorable  I could hear him long after I closed the book each day. He is the figure whose sweet innocence mitigates the horror, the figure that ensures the book never descends into the simplistic mode of villain versus victim pure monster  It’s one of the reasons this is a novel like no other I’ve read in recent years.


End Notes

Emma Donoghue was born in Ireland but now lives in Canada. Room was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010. It was released as a film in 2015.

Emma Donaghue talks about the writing of her novel in an interview with the Guardian 



About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on October 3, 2015, in Book Reviews, Irish authors and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. Defintiely a unique novel. I read a few months ago and could hit myself for not reading it earlier. I was anticipating it being difficult to read. In the end I felt she treated the subject perfectly. She followed through brilliantly. I’m surprised she didn’t win any awards for Room.

  2. Spot on. I remember reading this right when it came out in paperback and having the opportunity to go to a book reading where Donoghue spoke about it and her thought processes were fascinating.

    I’m also going to see a screening of the film version in 2-3 weeks which will also be interesting as I know she’s been on set and will be there that evening as well!

  3. I put off reading this book for quite some time but then as so often happens it turned up on a reading group list and so I had to tackle it. Like you, I was impressed by the quality of the writing and especially the fact that Donoghue was able to maintain the same tone so consistently. However, it was a book that split the group. There were those who thought that it over sentimentalised Jack and found it completely unbelievable.

  4. I found it an absorbing, chilly read but very well written. Terrifying too.

  5. I didn’t click with this novel I’m afraid. I agree with your comments on the change in momentum in the second half – for me the first section was much stronger.

  6. I loved this novel, the child Jack is just the most wonderful child character, believable and memorable. This is certainly a novel which stays with the reader.

  7. My wife is a big fan of Donoghue and we enjoyed hearing her read in a small bookstore when she last visited Melbourne and to get some books signed. Her other novels are worth checking out too. (ps – I think it’s spelled Donoghue!)

    • thanks for spotting my error on the author’s name. Fixed it now. Lucky you to get the chance to meet the author; wish we had some of those events around here

  8. Great review of this book! It also makes me think about how something good can come out of something bad, someone to love out of a hateful situation.

  9. Brilliant book and you did a wonderful review. I think I will be watching the movie …

  10. I agree about how unique this novel was! It really stuck to my mind even after years… Can’t wait to see the movie! Also, isn’t it supposed to be Donoghue and not Donaghue?

  11. The way it came out so near to the fritzel case was uncanny .

  12. I have had a copy of this book for so long but whenever I see it I shy away, I think because of the subject matter, although this isn’t something that usually worries me – I really must give it a try though.

    • that was exactly the situation I had Cleopatra. I couldn’t decide whether i wanted to read it and was on the point of giving it away but thought I’d just try the beginning and if I didnt like it, then it definitely would end up in the charity shop bag. but after a few pages I couldn’t put it down

  13. I read this book when it first came out.

    It was very good despite the subject matter.

    Thanks for your wonderful review.

    Silver’s Reviews
    My Blog

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