Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

Title: Room
Author: Emma Donoghue
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 432
Price: Rs 350
Genre: Fiction / literary fiction  
Rating: 10/10
Format: Paperback

I read ‘A Stolen Life’ by Jaycee Dugard some time back. With due respect to what she went through as a captive, the book as a piece of literature did not work for me. It felt gross and repetitive.

‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue has a strikingly similar premise. ‘A Stolen Life’ is a true story, while ‘Room’ is a fictitious one. This widely-talked about, much-hyped, award-winning book is essentially about Jack, a 5-year old boy, who lives with his mother - Ma – in eleven feet by eleven feet room. He was born in that room and has been oblivious to the world outside; this ‘room’ is his world. Jack believes that most of the things which he sees on TV are imaginary. His ‘Ma’ has been kept captive by a man (they call Old Nick) for last 7 years. For me, it was Jack’s story all the way - how he rises above his circumstances, makes sense of the things around him and copes with the changing situations.

What differentiates this book from several others like this is the fact that the narration is by the 5-year old Jack. And that transforms the book from a potentially depressing and dark tale to the one of discovery, wonder and courage. Notwithstanding their circumstances, the book is heart-warming, charming and endearing.

Though we don’t know what Ma thinks but what Jack thinks about her mother tells a lot about her. It is amazing how she takes care of a curious and intelligent child in the confines of a small room; giving him enough exercise, mental stimulation, activities and entertainment throughout the day. Jack and Ma follow a routine everyday which includes things like playing pillow fight, Island, Karate, Tracks, screaming at the top of their voice, watching TV, singing, playing parrot, and weekly activities like cleaning and scrubbing, laundry, mattress flipping, washing hair, etc.

As a result, Jack’s vocabulary and thinking abilities are much advanced than an average five-year old.

Despite the fact that Ma has been a victim of forced captivity and abuse for so many years, the book does not focus on that aspect. We hardly get to know any major details even about the Old Nick. We gather some bits and pieces from what Jack puts across matter-of-factly. For example, Old Nick visits their room on several nights, when Jack is supposed to be hidden in the cupboard (Ma does her best to keep Jack away from Old Nick). Ma bears the entire ordeal of sexual abuse (implied) so that she can get food and utilities for Jack’s survival from Old Nick.
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.”

After his fifth birthday, Ma starts telling Jack about the existence of a real world outside, and starts putting together a plan for escape.

It is interesting the way the author has put across the relevance of “the room” for Jack. Ma and Jack look at the room differently. For Ma, it epitomizes her plight, while for Jack it has been the world for five years of his life. The ‘room’ is his cocoon, where he wants to crawl back for comfort.  

The author, in her interview at the end of the book, says she has used ‘classic errors and grammatical oddities that would not seriously confuse readers” and yet keep the essence of the voice of a 5-year old.

I kept wondering about the closure of the book, and prayed that it should not be disappointing. Though it was not a dramatic closure, it was certainly the most apt.

Beautiful characterization and excellent story-telling make this book worthy of all the attention and praise it is getting all over the world.

Never mind the 400 pages. Read it. Period.

Image source: Goodreads


  1. I loved this book to bits ! Here's what I thought about about it ..

  2. Yes! I saw your review on GoodReads. I loved it too; one of those books which I can keep recommending to people. The author has done a fabulous job - such depressing premise and yet a story full of hope, isn't it?

  3. Read only good things about this one...may be one day :)

  4. Happy that you liked it very much..My thoughts were slightly different, but then does it matter?

    1. Elizabeth, I read your thougts on GoodReads and it is good to share different POVs - different thoughts, different experiences and different perspectives about the same book make the same book so much more worthy :-) In retrospect, the reason I liked this book so much is because it was narrated by Jack. From a depressing tale of circumstances, it becomes one of discovering the world and oneself. Also, because we don't know anything about what his Ma thinks or the reason for a few things, the book is pleasantly open -ended for interpretation. What do you say? 'A Stolen Life' is almost the same story by the victim's perspective but I was so depressed reading it that i rejected the idea of even reviewing it. I did not find anything good to higlhlight -the narrative, the language or the insight - nothing! I could not understand the purpose of the book.

  5. Smita, you must, and soon. It is very good. Incidentally, I got another book with this one called 'One Day' by David Nicholls. Romance. Made into movie. Check GoodReads.