Imagine a room. It's 11 feet by 11 feet --- about the size of your average bedroom, perhaps. Inside is a bed, a dresser, a table, a shelf on the wall, a trash can, a television, a small refrigerator and a stove, and a small bathroom with a tub. Everything you own is in the room. There are no windows, only a skylight. Now imagine that skylight is covered with a carbon mesh that makes the glass impossible to break. The floor has been reinforced with chain link to make it impossible to dig up. No one can enter or leave the room unless they have the security code. The walls have been soundproofed so that no one can hear you scream.
This is the room --- a horrifically tricked-out garden shed, actually --- where Jack's Ma has lived for the past seven years, ever since she was kidnapped from college at the age of 19, trapped in this room and forced to have sex repeatedly with her captor (known to Jack as "Old Nick"), who visits daily. And this is the room where Jack was born five years ago, the only world he's ever known. As kids are prone to do, Jack names the inhabitants of Room: there's Table, Fort (made of empty boxes and cans) Labyrinth (made of empty toilet paper rolls) and Plant. But mostly, there's Jack and there's Ma. As far as Jack is concerned, they're the only two people in the world. And Room is the world. Ma decided a long time ago to maintain this fiction for Jack, to tell him that everything he sees on television, even the local news, is as make-believe as the Dora the Explorer cartoon he loves most of all.
That is, until Ma, plagued by ill health and worried about their captor's increasing financial instability, decides to try to escape. Her first step is to tell Jack to "unlie," as he puts it, to let him know that there is a whole world outside their four walls, a wonderful world that he's never seen. Jack's attempts to process these unimaginable concepts result in some of the book's most poignant reflections: "The sea's real, I'm just remembering. It's all real in Outside, everything there is, because I saw the airplane in the blue between the clouds. Ma and me can't go there because we don't know the secret code, but it's real all the same. Before I didn't even know to be mad that we can't open Door, my head was too small to have Outside in it. When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I'm five I know everything." And, of course, if Jack and Ma can escape from Room, they'll both face new challenges unlike any they've met before.
As I was reading Emma Donoghue's new novel, I often had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by what I was reading. The content is devastating, to be sure, but just as affecting is her ability to capture, in small moments and spot-on phrases, the inner life of a little boy who has lived through experiences most of us could barely imagine.
Of course, the pathos inherent in Jack's situation and his endearingly naïve narrative voice are only the beginning of the myriad issues Donoghue explores in ROOM. Parents and caregivers will ache for Ma --- for the choices she has to make (each day while "Old Nick" is at work, the two of them scream for a while, as loud as they can, and then, in Jack's words, "we shush, with fingers on lips. I asked Ma once what we're listening for and she said just in case, you never know."), for the fierce love she has for her son, for the million ways, for his sake, she makes the best of a hellish situation. Despite their extreme circumstances, Ma is really just like any other parent, doing the best she can with the resources she has, doing all she can to preserve her son's happiness, which, for her, is often the only reason to get up in the morning.
What's most remarkable about ROOM is that, despite its obvious parallels to certain much-hyped real-life cases, Donoghue appears to take great pains not only to eschew sensationalism in her own writing but also to inject a measure of hope and wonder. Although Ma's re-entry into the world is fraught with frustrations, sadness and overwhelming emotions, and although Jack's entry into Outside for the first time is marked by fears and misunderstandings, his narrative of discovery is also a remarkable window on the world. In many ways, Jack is like a hyper-literate, painstakingly observant newborn, taking in the world and all its wonders and terrors for the first time, but able to narrate his experience.
Reading ROOM is, in many ways, like opening that Door and making those discoveries --- many of which we take for granted --- alongside him. On meeting Jack, most readers will want to hold his hand or bundle him into their arms and cry a while. But then they'll be eager to walk with him into Outside, to see it, as if through his eyes, for the first time.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 13, 2010