By Emma Donoghue
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If you’ve read Emma Donahue’s latest novel Room, you can answer the following question – how can you not fall in love with Jack? He’s the center of this powerful story of survival and contentment.
Room details the story of a woman, who at 19, was abducted by a man in a pick-up truck and forced to live as his hostage in an 11 x 11 foot room. The story begins when she’s 26, and her son Jack is about to celebrate his fifth birthday in the only world he’s ever known. The woman, known only to the readers as Ma, has done her best to raise him as normal a child as possible. Jack is allowed to watch some TV (he loves Dora The Explorer) and was raised to brush his teeth after every meal. His mother makes him exercise by sprinting around the room and makes him read to her.
Jack knows of only one other human, Old Nick as he’s called, the man holding them there. He comes in nightly to remind them of his stronghold over them, and after attempts to escape, Ma always obeys his orders. As in some small, mighty nice of you, act of kindness, Jack is allowed a weekly “sundaytreat” where he can ask for anything he wants or Ma can ask for anything she needs, such as new underwear. In truth they aren’t acts of kindness at all – sundytreats are his way of making sure nothing happens to them so neither Jack or Ma have to leave the room and blow the whole scheme.
Donahue is smart in writing Room – by making 5 year old Jack the narrator, the story has a childlike lightness and doesn’t get bogged down with the enormity of the situation. Her biggest challenge was to write in the voice of a five year old – something she masters with ease. From the opening paragraph – “Today I’m five. I was four last night, going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, two, then one, then zero. “Was I Minus Numbers?” – Donahue hooks the reader and doesn’t lets go.
But she also never lets Jack seem naive. He very easily could’ve been brainless, but Donahue makes him smart and very advanced for his age. Ma doesn’t let Jack become a victim of his surroundings, just a prisoner of Old Nick. Luckily Jack has maintained his innocence and Donahue makes sure we never forget that our narrator is just a child. As with most five-year-olds, Jack asks a lot of questions, a fact that sometimes bogs down the story. You almost wish Jack would shut up and not always question everything. But it’s his inquisitive personality that enders him to all who read this story.
In a lot of ways, Room is an eyeopener. It puts a personal spin on child abductions and makes them all too real for the reader. To hear Ma talk about being tricked into Nick’s truck by his tale of a missing dog, is the classic scenario – one hard to believe anyone still falls for; yet there are people naive enough who do. No insight is given into why she didn’t run away back then, and Jack is too young to ask the appropriate questions to help the reader understand.
What truly amazes me about Ma is her ability to not only survive but thrive in a situation where most people would feel powerless. Donahue never comes out and says it directly, but Jack is Ma’s savior, her vehicle towards pushing through the days. In fact, Room lacks much by way of religion and/or faith based healing. While conversations on the subject are kept to a minimum, we learn early on that Jack has been taught to view the moon as the face of God. This lack of religion leads the reader to wonder about the role of a higher power in Jack and Ma’s lives. It seems they survive only because they need each other – Jack is an extension of his mother and Ma is an extension of her son.
My only slight criticism of Room is the length of the story. The novel moves along at what feels like a breakneck pace – it doesn’t stay on one subject for too long. It might simply be my habit of reading more drawn out novels, but the book did come off short; especially in the middle. Donahue seemed in a rush to end one conflict and begin another. In a weird sense, this book is a bit happier than the premiss suggests. While there is a fleeting, tense-filled act of terror at the hands of Nick, it’s just that – fleeting. I wish Donahue had slowed down the story and drawn out “Old Nick” a little more. It’s as if she began the novel after all the truly scary moments had ended.
But telling the story though the eyes of Jack gives Room its magic. The detriment of all artists is to find their voice, that unique quality separating themselves from everyone else. Donahue has found hers through Jack. One look at the crayon illustration on the cover and you’re drawn to giving Room a second look. While it would’ve been easier to write from multiple voices and perspectives, finding that cohesive angle in Jack helps Room stay rooted in reality without becoming a victim of circumstance. Room is as much about captivity as it is about rebirth. It teaches everyone and stands as a valuable lesson about losing everything you’ve ever known, only to find out exactly what you really need. I wouldn’t be shocked to see this on the short-list of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.