Emma Donoghue’s much awarded 2010 novel Room (Picador 2010) is a recent read for me. I saw the wonderful movie of it last year. Having read the book, I think it catches the claustrophobic yet vividly alive world of the five-year-old child better, because the whole narration is in the child’s voice, and we imagine and live it only through him.
That said, of course this narrative method has a strong limitation. But first, an outline of the story. Since the book is six years old, and the movie a year old, I will assume that readers are familiar with the story of a woman and her five-year-old son Jack, locked in a small room, 12 feet square, with the only window to the outside world a skylight, and a locked door to which only their jailer, whom they call Old Nick, has the code. This story is based on several real life cases of women who were abducted and incarcerated and bore children to their abuser.
Donoghue has chosen to free her characters from the prison after Jack’s 5th birthday. “Ma” decides he is old enough now to understand that the world he knows only as Outside, that he knows of only through television and the light through the skylight, is real, a much bigger reality than the only one he has known since birth. The room is an extension of Ma’s womb, and Jack is utterly secure in it. It is populated with objects given personalities (Rug, Bed, Wardrobe, Plant, and so on) and with the stories, songs and games they play to pass the time. There are a few books which he knows by heart, and thanks to Ma he is highly literate and numerate. She has worked very hard, we come to see, to educate and nourish him and to keep him happy and safe. Indeed, she is a hero.
The plot twists halfway through the book, after Ma begins to inform Jack of the reality of Outside and the fact that Room is a prison. Jack is reluctant to accept this at first, but gradually is forced to admit that Ma is very unhappy and wants to escape. The escape plot that Ma hatches is dangerous and could have gone very badly wrong. But for my part, I accepted the imaginative logic of the story; that short of divine intervention, and given the extreme secrecy of their captor and the measures he had taken to keep their existence hidden, there is no other way. So I suspended my disbelief when the escape succeeded. The telling of it is gripping.
The limitation I mentioned above of the narrative method is much more evident in the second half of the story. In the first half, their world is enclosed, with only glimpses of Old Nick told by Jack as he listens and sometimes watches from his safe place in the wardrobe. The claustrophobia is perfectly conveyed by Jack’s voice, who does not see it for what it is, so we have that dual perception, that irony, that is used in masterly ways in other fictions of childhood like The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, The Little Prince, and others. What we are not told, what Jack does not see or understand, what lies between the lines, we imagine.
The dual perception is much harder to sustain once they are in the outside world. The world they inhabited is gone, and Jack must learn and get used to the myriad diverse and complex places, rituals, people, objects and events that they are confronted with. He must also accept there is not just me-and-Ma now, that his Ma’s reality is much bigger than him. There is another story here, of course, that of Ma’s painful re-entrance, adjustment to freedom, to her parents, to dealing with past trauma and health challenges, to facing the future as a ‘free’ agent. This is where I am most aware of the limitation, because we can only glimpse her unfolding and adaptation through Jack’s eyes and snatches of overheard conversation. So we must accept this is and remains Jack’s story. But for me, her story shadows it and begs to be told.
That said, his voice is superbly created and sustained, much of it in dialogue with Ma, interspersed with Jack’s descriptions of his thoughts and actions, of Ma, and later, of Outside and other people. And sometimes of his rationalisation of the strange ways of the world, so that, with Swiftian irony, his child’s eye view critiques the way we live:
In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time. Even Grandma often says that, and she and Steppa [her second husband] don’t have jobs, so I don’t know how persons with jobs do the jobs and all the living as well. In Room me and Ma had time for everything. I guess the time gets spread very thin like butter over all the world, so there’s only a little smear of time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit.
Also everywhere I’m looking at kids, adults mostly don’t seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the same thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don’t want to actually play with them, they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there’s even a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn’t even hear.
And a personal note by the author on her webpage:
Room was inspired by… having kids; the locked room is a metaphor for the claustrophobic, tender bond of parenthood. I borrowed observations, jokes, kid grammar and whole dialogues from our son Finn, who was five while I was writing it. Room was also inspired by… ancient folk motifs of walled-up virgins who give birth (e.g. Rapunzel), often to heroes (e.g. Danaë and Perseus). Room was also inspired by… the Fritzl family’s escape from their dungeon in Austria – though I doubt I’ll ever use contemporary headlines as a launching point again, since I didn’t like being even occasionally accused of ‘exploitation’ or tagged ‘Fritzl writer’.