Book review: ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue

Everything you’ve heard about this book is true.

For 5-year-old Jack, the world is made up of Room — the 11×11 ft. space he calls home — and Ma, his beloved mother, caretaker and best friend. Everything else — the sky; wind; friends; dogs; the world — “are TV,” made-up creations he sees through the small television set in Room. His day-in and day-out companions are Rug, Remote, Plant and, occasionally, Spider, but Ma won’t let Spider take up much residence in Room. Too many germs.

Abducted by “Old Nick” when she was just 19, Ma has been confined to Room for seven years — five of which she has now spent with Jack, her reason to keep living. But as Jack continues to grow in their small, stagnant space, Ma realizes she must find a way to escape . . . if not for herself, than for her child. But what comes next surprises them all.

Narrated in the quizzical, endearing and puzzled voice of a young boy, Emma Donoghue’s Room is an unforgettable story of survival and love. Before Donoghue’s novel was nominated for the Indie Lit Awards in the literary fiction category, I was afraid to pick it up. Abduction? Mental torture? The premise alone was terrifying, and I try not to put myself in terrifying positions. I’m an empathetic reader, as are many of us; when written well, I truly feel what the characters feel.

And I didn’t know if I was ready to feel what Jack was going through.

Or Ma, for that matter — but Ma remains, in some ways, a mystery to us. Brilliantly written from Jack’s perspective, we’re shown the world of Room and Outside from his pint-sized and innocent perspective. The 5-year-old’s perceptions of the world in which we live, work, dream, love and eat is so entirely foreign — so completely unfathomable — that we, as readers, have no choice but to take it all in as though we’ve just dropped here from Venus. Talking with his grandparents in the latter half of the novel, Jack says,

In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time. Even Grandma often says that, but she and Steppa 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 all over the world, the roads and houses and playgrounds and stores, so there’s only a little smear of time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit.

From the mouths of babes.

That’s what’s so compelling about Room: Jack’s complete and utter innocence. Despite the horrendous circumstances under which he was born and raised, Jack is unsullied, undamaged; he appreciates everything about the world and life in such a pure way. Things as simple as feeling the sun on his skin are experienced in a ferociously unique way. Ma has wanted nothing more than to keep Jack safe, and it seemed that leaving Room was the only way to do that.

Of course, out in Outside — in the world — it gets even harder.

Many reviewers have noted their desire to view the situation from Ma’s perspective, trying to absorb the timeline of events and mental anguish of living in total seclusion. But what marks Room as so different from any other abduction/suspenseful novel is, for me, that we don’t live the harsh realities with Ma and Jack. He says, “In Room I was safe and Outside is scary.” He doesn’t know to be afraid — so we don’t, either. Most of the time.

Oh, there’s so much to discuss here! I read the bulk of this book in a few hours with my stomach twisted in knots as strong as concrete, then finished it before bed on a Sunday. I was worried that the subject matter would be too disturbing for my delicate sensibilities, but it wasn’t; despite the horrifying subject matter, the novel is not graphic. Everything is filtered through Jack’s misunderstandings of what’s really happening, so we don’t have to settle in with any gruesome details.

Also, I loved the little details about contemporary life and pop culture — “Dora The Explorer,” rappers, popular movies — that reminded me Jack and Ma’s life was happening now, right now, while everyone else in the world was keeping schedules, doing dishes and helping with homework, all unaware of the woman and child living in captivity — possibly in a neighbor’s yard. It’s unbelievable. What’s worse, too, is that the novel has a “ripped from the headlines” feel at points, particularly with mentions of paparazzi and news interviews. This really could be happening.

Room is a New York Times bestseller and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2010, plus it made the “best of” lists of many wonderful bloggers. Nominated for the Indie Lit Awards in the Literary Fiction category, it’s a sensational and unforgettable novel. Not to be missed.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0812981227 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy won from publisher contest on Twitter

18 thoughts on “Book review: ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue

  1. I loved this one too, but disagreed with the people who would have preferred the story from Ma’s view. I thought Jack’s view of the world and of the situation was perfect. What a well-done novel! The author lives about an hour from me, so I’m hoping to attend a book signing some day.


  2. I haven’t read this yet because of what it deals with. However, I am pleased to read that it almosts blankets the harshness and brutality of it. Definitely need to read soon.


  3. One of the things that struck me so much was Jack’s reaction the first time he saw the sky and the rest of the world for the first time when he was moving in the truck, and how Ma didn’t anticipate how distracted he would be over it. But just imagine seeing it all for the first time! Pretty amazing book!


  4. I definitely think that much of the brilliance of the book was due to Jack’s perspective. It forced me to think of things in a way I’d never have done if we could have seen the experience through Ma’s eyes. I didn’t think of it before but it does have a very contemporary feel, which only added to its impact.


  5. I loved this book too. I still think about it even after all of these months. If you liked it, you might like this book “When I was 5 I killed myself” which has a horrible title because it is not about killing yourself at all but I will admit it’s kind of depressing. I remembered feeling the same way after this book that I did after Room because it was narrated by an 8 year old.


  6. I have heard nothing but rave reviews about this book. To be honest though, that makes a little leary about reading it. I have such high expectations for it that I’m afraid it won’t live up to the hype.


  7. I know it made my best list of 2010. I thought the author’s ability to imagine the implications on a child raised in captivity was brilliant. We read this in our book club, and we talked for hours.


  8. I know that everyone loves this book but I just can’t read it…your review is lovely and makes me want to but I can’t get past being in that room…it makes me feel claustrophobic…


  9. I’m glad you enjoyed this book so much! It really is one of those that sticks with you and I agree with you, those everyday, right now details really do make it all the more realistic.


  10. I’ll admit that I have been really hesitant to pick this one up, despite the great reviews : I often have a hard time with books narrated from a child’s point of view (unless it’s children fiction). I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it though; I’ll add you review to my list of “pros”. I know I’ll end up reading it at some time, I hope to enjoy it as you did. Great review!


  11. Well, it’s good to hear that what everyone has been saying about this book is true. I wasn’t sure if this was really something I would want to read, but now I’m thinking that it is worth a try. It certainly sounds unique. Great review.


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