‘“What’s wrong with needing?” “It’s hard to explain.” … “My teeth feel a bit better if I stop thinking about them,” she tells me. “How come?” “It’s called mind over matter. If we don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”’
Spoiler alert: this post contains major spoilers.
Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in this post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s.
Emma Donoghue’s Room was first published in 2010 and is based on what was one of the biggest, and perhaps most shocking, news stories of 2008 – that of Josef Fritzl. Fritzl imprisoned, raped, violated and bore seven children with his daughter over 24 years in the town of Amstetten, Austria. Room, then, tells the story about a woman – ‘Ma’ – and her son Jack who are held captive by ‘Old Nick’ over a period of several years. The story is told from Jack’s perspective and accordingly written in the language of a child. Jack was born in captivity and has only ever known the room he grew up in.
The question that stuck with me when I started reading the book is, is it possible to bring such a difficult topic to life and make it seem realistic at the same time? In Donoghue’s case it is. Room as a story works because it is told from Jack’s point of view and not from Ma’s or Old Nick’s. Because, can you really write a story from the point of view of a kidnapped woman, if you haven’t experienced a similar situation yourself? It seems impossible, although I don’t think anyone but a woman could have written a book like this. Moreover, it is impossible to even try to imagine what goes on in the mind of a man like that. One of the best points of the book is in fact that Old Nick isn’t described much at all, or doesn’t really play much of a role. He’s only there when he comes to “visit” Ma at night or when he brings food or other items Ma and Jack need to survive. Jack has to hide in the wardrobe every time Old Nick is there, so we never get to see him. Nevertheless the reader always feels his presence in Ma’s and Jack’s life. This creates a feeling of suspense and tension, in turn making the story more realistic.
‘Nothing makes Ma scared. Except Old Nick maybe. Mostly she calls him just him, I didn’t even know the name for him until I saw a cartoon about a guy that comes in the night called Old Nick. I called the real one that because he comes in the night, but he doesn’t look like the TV guy with a beard and horns and stuff. I asked Ma once is he old, and she said he’s nearly double her which is pretty old.’
‘When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight it’s 217 creaks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops. I don’t know what would happen if I didn’t count, because I always do. What about the nights I’m asleep? I don’t know, maybe Ma does the counting.’
It’s easy to think that this book is a story about kidnapping and violence – and in a way it is, of course. However, fundamentally I think it is a story of motherhood and the relationship between a mother and her son. Ma does everything to keep Jack out of harm’s way and to protect him and tries to bring him up in as normal a way as possible, for example insisting on a daily routine. Yet at the same time it becomes clear that Ma probably couldn’t survive without Jack – that he gives her focus and balance, that without him she would probably not survive captivity.
‘“I figure there must be something wrong,” he’s saying to Ma, “you’ve never let me get a good look since the day he was born. Poor little freak’s got two heads or something?” … “He’s just shy.” “He’s got no reason to be shy of me,” says Old Nick. “Never laid a hand on him.” … “Let’s just go to bed.” Ma’s voice is strange. Old Nick does a kind of laugh. “I know what you need, missy.” “Come on,” she says again. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you manners?” Lamp goes out. But Ma doesn’t have a mother. Bed’s loud, that’s him getting in. … I don’t want to count the creaks but I do.’
This is another reason, in my opinion, why the book works – because it focuses on motherhood and the mother-son relationship, rather than the difficult – and perhaps indescribable – topic of the kidnapping.
The story starts when Jack turns five and goes on to tell Ma’s and Jack’s daily life in the room – their routine, the way Ma makes sure Jack keeps himself occupied and learns things, what they eat, their games etc. Basically, it shows the love of a mother who tries to give her son as normal a life as possible under impossible circumstances. And it also shows the strategies a mother employs for herself and her son to be able to survive a situation like the one they find themselves in. Before meals, they for example pray, and then they play games like Hum where they have to guess songs or like Labyrinth, which is made out of toilet paper or like Bouncy Ball or Eggsnake which is made out of egg shells. They watch TV but Ma turns the commercials silent as the commercials “mush” the human brain and they have different tasks each day – Tuesday is for cleaning and Thursday for doing laundry, for example.
‘We have a pretty busy morning. First we undo Pirate Ship that we made last week and turn it into Tank. Balloon is the driver, she used to be as big as Ma’s head and pink and fat, now she’s small like my fist only red and wrinkly. We only blow up one when it’s the first of the month, so we can’t make Balloon a sister till it’s April. Ma plays with Tank too but not as long. She gets sick of things fast, it’s from being an adult.’
‘Monday is laundry day, we get into Bath with socks, underwears, my gray pants that ketchup squirted on, the sheets and dish towels, and we squish all the dirt out.’
‘Lunch is bean salad, my second worst favorite. After nap we do Scream every day but not Saturdays or Sundays. We clear our throats and climb up on Table to be nearer Skylight, … Then we shish with fingers on lips. I asked Ma once what we’re listening for and she said just in case, you never know.’
And yet there are days when Ma doesn’t wake up – giving the reader an idea of her situation and what she is going through, and how she probably would not survive without Jack, who is giving her focus.
‘Today is one of the days when Ma is Gone. She won’t wake up properly. She’s here but not really. She stays in Bed with the pillows on her head.’
Ma and Jack eventually escape – I won’t say how – and the story after is the only part I’m not convinced by. I still like it, but I’m not convinced it’s realistic. Again, it is hard to make a story like that realistic (can you ever, after all, recover from something like that?) but it feels too rushed. The way they reconnect with Ma’s family, stay in a clinic, deal with the press, eventually get a place of their own in an independent living residential facility feels too rushed in the sense that I don’t think anyone can recover from an experience and move on from it that quickly. By “move on” I mean in the sense of living a sort of independent life. Of course, I don’t know how much time passes between their rescue and the end of the book but the way it’s told, it doesn’t seem like it’s a lot of time. At the same time I wouldn’t know how to describe it any better or add anything more to it. Perhaps the only thing that would have improved this part of the book would have been to describe in more detail (it is mentioned at one point or two) how much time in total had passed – months, a year or more? That would have made the story’s ending a bit more plausible.
‘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 over all 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.’
‘Also everywhere I’m looking at kids, adults mostly don’t seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don’t want to actually play with them, they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there’s a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn’t even hear.’
‘“Remember”, she says on the way to the white car, “we don’t hug strangers. Even nice ones.” “Why not?” “We just don’t, we save our hugs for people we love.” “I love that boy Walker.” “Jack, you never saw him before in your life.”’
‘Driving home I see the playground but it’s all wrong, the swings are on the opposite side. “Oh Jack, that’s a different one,” says Grandma. “There’s playgrounds in every town.” Lots of the world seems to be a repeat.’
‘“It’s perverse,” Ma is telling Dr. Clay, “all those years, I was craving company. But now I don’t seem up to it.” … “Most days … Jack’s enough for me.” “ ‘The Sould selects her own Society – Then – shuts the Door – ‘“ That’s his poem voice. Ma nods. “Yeah, but it’s not how I remember myself.” “You had to change to survive.” Noreen looks up. “Don’t forget, you’d have changed anyway. Moving into your twenties, having a child – you wouldn’t have stayed the same.” Ma just drinks her coffee.’
Overall, Donoghue’s Room is highly recommendable – and I’m certainly not the only one that thinks so. It is a bestseller after all and the movie earned Brie Larson an Academy Award for Best Actress (not that the Oscars count for much, in my opinion). It’s a powerful and shocking yet touching and moving book at the same time. I would definitely recommend it.
About Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue is an Irish-Canadian writer. Born in Dublin in 1969, she gained a BA in English and French from University College Dublin and in 1997 received her PhD from the University of Cambridge. She has been a writer since the age of 23 and writes fiction, which she is best known for, history and drama for radio, stage and screen. Room, an international bestseller was shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange Prizes. More on her website.