Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 320 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
I had not planned to review Emma Donoghue’s Room quite so soon after reading it. But then it was named on the Booker Prize longlist on Tuesday and I figured now was a good a time as any to share my thoughts.
The novel, which is Donoghue’s seventh, is an extraordinarily atmospheric read. I use the term “atmospheric” to describe the feelings it evokes in the reader and the ways in which those feelings linger for days afterwards. I found myself not so much reeling in its wake but feeling as if something had shifted inside of me, so that I could no longer perceive the world in the same way.
Donoghue, who is Irish but lives in Canada, largely achieves this by the curious narrative voice she employs. The entire story is told through the eyes of Jack, a five-year-old boy, who is locked in a room with his mother and has never stepped outside its four walls. (There’s an interesting plan of the room on the Picador website.)
To Jack the world is the room in which he lives. And even though he watches TV, he does not realise that what he sees on screen is “real”. He has no concept of what lies beyond the locked door and the skylight above his head.
Everything he does, everything he says, everything he thinks is limited by his lack of interaction with the outside world. The language he employs has a wide vocabulary but is occasionally stilted.
When the book begins we do not know how Jack and his 27-year-old mother came to be locked in the room. We just know that they are there, that their days are filled with ingenious games and ways of passing the time, and that they enjoy each other’s company. But at night things are different: Jack hides away in a wardrobe and Ma has to “entertain” their captor, Old Nick, who “creaks the bed”. His very presence is menacing without Jack being able to explain why it is menacing.
I think this is the strength of Donoguhe’s skill as a writer. Because the entire story is told from a child’s perspective, ordinary everyday tasks take on an extraordinary dimension. And because we are reading it through the lense of adult experience, we have the ability to understand far more about what is going on than Jack does without Donoghue having to spell it out. (There are shades of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incidence of the Dog in the Night-Time in this approach, but without the sentimentality of those novels. I was also reminded more than once of Nikki Gemmell’s slightly more sinister The Book of Rapture but that’s more to do with the subject matter than the voice.)
The narrative kicks up a gear when Jack is told about the world outside the four walls in which he has lived his entire life. The news does not sit well with him. It’s too strange, too unbelievable to be true. He cannot grasp its meaning. Even when his mother begins to plot their escape, you know that Jack has not understood the consequences.
If nothing else Room is a story about a child’s journey from a completely sheltered existence to a new world full of hidden dangers. Indeed, Donoghue said she was inspired to write it a few days after the Fritzl family were discovered in their dungeon in Austria. In the press material that came with my book, Donoghue says: “If such a story of being born into captivity were told from the child’s point of view, I thought, it would not be a horror or a sob story, but a journey from one world to another.”
This is an astonishingly good novel, one that is ambitious in subject matter and perfectly executed so that you read it, partly in awe, partly in shock, but always completely immersed in the story. It’s got cracking dialogue, an irrepressible narrative voice and the kind of page-turning quality that makes you eat up 320 pages in one sitting. I am conscious of the fact that I haven’t told you much about the plot, but to do so would spoil the enjoyment of the tale which, as it unravels, envelops you in a kind of fug that is difficult to shake off. It’s tender, funny, disquieting and thought-provoking.
Will it win the Booker? Only time will tell.
Room is published in the UK on July 30. You can read an extract on the Picador website.