‘Room’, one of the highest profile acquisitions of 2009, is finally published this week. Already longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker prize and lauded by critics and other authors, I wanted to keep my reading of the novel as separate from these raised expectations as possible.
Five-year-old Jack has lived his whole life with his mother in a twelve by twelve foot room, held prisoner by a man they call Old Nick. This name turns out to be a macabre joke, as Jack confuses him with Santa because he occasionally comes into the room to bring them things. Inanimate objects in the room are proper nouns, capitalised and given genders, because apart from his mother, they are his only companions. Despite the presence of a television set, Jack is wholly unaware of the existence a world beyond Room’s soundproof walls until his mother enlightens him and then tells him that he is their only means of escape. It’s a bold idea, but Donoghue has the skill to pull it off. Jack’s voice is more or less believable as that of a young child who has had plenty of opportunity to build an unusually wide vocabulary (we see him parroting voices on the television) but has only had to make himself understood by one person. He doesn’t use correct verb forms but instead has developed an internal grammar with its own rules. Although at times this was annoying, it felt quite credible and never became so distracting as to be off-putting. There is a sort of duality to reading ‘Room’ as the reader fills in the gaps and mistakes in Jacks understanding of the world. Donoghue uses this dynamic masterfully, with Jack’s lack of awareness of the dangers he faces adding to the tension of an already suspenseful plot.
Because Jack does not yet understand the scale of the world, he cannot grasp the concept of fame, which is what awaits them when they emerge. Through snatches of conversation Donoghue effectively conveys the rabid media attention, which is almost as troubling as the original crime. Jack overhears people on television talking about him as a kind of noble savage, or a spectator of culture’s shadows flickering on the walls of Plato’s cave. This is perhaps a swipe at literary overanalysis, but could also be read as underscoring the place of fiction. ‘Room’ raises important questions, but this scene forces us to question our right to treat the real suffering of other people as some kind of thought-experiment.
The relationship between Jack and his mother is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the book. Although at times he unwittingly hurts her because he is so ignorant about the world, he has been the main purpose in her life since his birth. Because he is so young, he has a complete lack of empathy with the people around him, even his mother, and at times has moments of pure selfishness. He tells Ma that she should have asked Old Nick for candles rather than the painkillers for her teeth, because it is only her who needs them, which fills her with shock and horror. Through Jack’s eyes a portrait of this woman gradually emerges: determined, resourceful, and devoted to her son. From the naive nineteen year old student she was at the time of her kidnapping, she has become an adult woman. Still, she has been deprived of a normal existence for seven years, and has emerged to find her contemporaries at another stage in their lives. While she is simply “Ma” to Jack (we never find out her given name, which would presumably be as recognisable as that of Natascha Kampusch or Elisabeth Fritzl), we see her struggling to reconcile her multiple identities as the student she used to be, the woman and mother she became and the sudden celebrity that she has been turned into.
I thought the novel’s ending was fantastic, almost perfect in its inevitability. Although the subject matter is exceedingly bleak, Donoghue closes on a hopeful note, moving without being saccharine.