Saturday, January 22, 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

Just recently, a group of ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) in my city formed a book club. Our first selection: Room. I doubt I would’ve stumbled across it on my own, but I’m very glad it was suggested for the book club, because it turned out to be a pretty awesome book. It’s a first person narrative from the perspective of a five-year-old boy named Jack. Jack has lived his entire life in a single room, which he refers to simply as Room. Though Jack doesn’t know it himself, it soon becomes apparent to the reader that Jack and his mother (Ma) are being held captive in what is essentially a storage shed converted into living quarters. It is later revealed that Ma has been living in this shed for the past seven years.

This book is divided into five sections. For the first section, Jack does not know that there is a world outside of Room. His world consists of an 11 by 11 foot space with a bed, wardrobe, table, TV, sink, toilet, bathtub, lamp and stove. He has been taught that the things inside of Room are real, and everything else is just TV. To his mind, there are only three real people in all of existence: himself, Ma, and Old Nick, the man who comes in the night. However, Jack doesn’t know much about Old Nick because Ma has Jack hide in the wardrobe every night so that Old Nick can never look at him.

However, in the second section of the book, Ma reveals to Jack that some of the things on the TV do exist outside of Room. That in fact, there is a whole world outside. Jack doesn’t believe her until one day he sees an airplane through the skylight of the shed. From that point, Ma begins the process of “unlying”, gradually explaining the world outside and how the two of them came to be in Room. While the book moves relatively slowly at first, the pace picks up toward the middle and there comes a breaking point when Ma realizes that her cooperation may no longer be enough to guarantee their safety. Well, I suppose “safety” is a relative term in this case. Anyhow, I won’t say what happens in the plot past this point, but there are pretty much only two possible outcomes, so you can likely guess where things are headed.

While the plot of the story is fairly unusual, the writing style is really the most unique thing about this book. It’s written in the voice of a young child, which takes some getting used to, but more than that, it’s written from the perspective of someone from an entirely isolated world. What would it be like not to know what wind, or rain, or rocks were? To be the only child in the universe? I think this passage is a fairly good illustration of Jack’s thinking:

“Mountains are too big to be real, I saw one in TV that has a woman hanging on it by ropes. Women aren’t real like Ma is, and girls and boys not either. Men aren’t real except Old Nick, and I’m not actually sure if he’s real for real. Maybe half? He brings groceries and Sundaytreat and disappears the trash, but he’s not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats. Maybe Door makes him up with a beep beep and the air changes. I think Ma doesn’t like to talk about him in case he gets realer.” (18)

Something I take for granted is the concept of separation, but to Jack, there is nothing in the world that belongs solely to him or solely to Ma. He hasn’t been alone even once in his life. Variety is another thing. In Jack’s world, there is only one Bed, one Lamp, one Table. Each of them is a singular entity; he doesn’t have a concept of “tables” or “beds” as categories.

With the interesting themes, unique writing style, and heartbreaking story, I was pretty well sucked into this book. It’s written in such a way that it all starts to feel real. I read it in two or three sittings, but if I had read it all at once I think it would’ve had even more of an impact. I would absolutely recommend Room. It’s disturbing in a lot of ways, but fascinating as well. There isn’t much in the way of explicit violence, but the undercurrents are very dark. I don’t think I’ve done it justice in my description of it. Please, if you’re up for an entirely new perspective on the world, read this book.

1 comment:

  1. I heard about that book on NPR... it sounded really horrible and depressing from the interview I heard, but you make it sound more worthwhile!


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