Several times in 2011, I considered reading Room by Emma Donoghue, but always ended up avoiding it. Knowing that the story was about a young woman kidnapped and kept in a locked room for years, I didn’t want to expose my emotional self to the material: my over-impressionable subconscious is already haunted by comparable real life cases. I knew the book was entirely narrated by a five-year-old boy, which supposedly created moments of humour that made the grim story bearable, but still — I stayed away from it.
In early 2012, feeling braver, I picked up the audiobook of Room at the library, thinking that I would give it a chance.
Listening to the opening chapter was a revelation. The actors who read this book are remarkable — in particular, Michal Friedman, who reads the part of five-year-old Jack, who was born in Room, where his Ma has spent the last six years of her life enduring the visits of the man who snatched her off the street when she was a nineteen-year-old student. Jack is smart and happy and full of curiosity, since the life he knows is full of interest and new things. Ma has created an ordered routine that makes sense of their days. She does her best to teach Jack about the world while maintaining the fiction that they and the man (“Old Nick”) are real and everything else is “TV.” They have a television, but Jack’s watching time is limited, since Ma tells him that if they watch too much their brains will rot. She is a survivor and she is waiting and biding her time for some future possibility of escape. Donoghue lets the reality of their situation dawn gradually and I envy readers who came to Room before the elements of the story became widely known.
Jack’s voice is convincing — the voice of a five-year-old who is at the same time precocious and observant but necessarily limited in his understanding:
Spider’s real. I’ve seen her two times. I look for her now but there’s only a web between Table’s leg and her flat. Tables balances good. that’s pretty tricky, when I go on one leg, I can do it for ages but then I always fall over. I don’t tell Ma about Spider. She brushes webs away, she says they’re dirty, but they look like extra thin silver to me …
I still don’t tell her about the web. It’s weird to have something that’s mine-not-Ma’s. Everything else is both of ours. I guess my body is mine and the ideas that happen in my head. But my cells are made out of her cells so I’m kind of hers. Also, when I tell her what I’m thinking and she tells me what she’s thinking, our each ideas jump into our other’s head, like colouring blue crayon on top of yellow that makes green …
Ma’s down on her knees, looking under Table. I can’t see her face till she pushes her hair behind her ear. “Tell you what, I’ll leave it till we clean, OK?”
That’s Tuesday, that’s three days. “OK.”
“You know what?” She stands up. “We’ve got to mark how tall you are, now you’re five.”
I jump way in the air.
Usually, I’m not allowed draw on any bits of Room or furnitures. When I was two, I scribbled on the leg of Bed, her one near Wardrobe, so whenever we’re cleaning up, Ma taps the scribble and says,”Look, we have to live with that forever.” But my birthday tall is different, it’s tiny numbers beside Door, a black 4, and a black 3 underneath, and a red 2 that was the color our old Pen was until he ran out, and at the bottom a red 1.
The eponymous Room is a garden shed. Old Nick has reinforced it to make it soundproof and added a steel door with a coded entry lock: you come to the chilling realization that he must have created this above-ground dungeon while making plans to abduct someone. Their only natural light comes from a skylight.
The horror behind the bright little voice is a steady presence in the background. Jack knows that Old Nick is to be avoided: he sleeps in the wardrobe and has to keep quiet if he is still awake when the man comes in, his arrival heralded by the beeps of the door lock. Nick sometimes hurts his Ma but usually he just creaks the bed. Jack lies awake and counts the creaks.
Ma takes painkillers (“killers,” to Jack) to deal with physical ailments like toothache and a damaged wrist, and perhaps also to dull other kinds of pain.
Around Jack’s fifth birthday, Ma learns from Nick that he has lost his job. Since he already keeps them on a tight budget, she fears that he will stop bringing them food and other necessities. He may even lose his house, and then they will die: they have no way of contacting anyone in the outside world. Jack is too young to learn the truth about their lives, but there is no option: she has to come up with a plan and drill Jack into playing a part he is not really ready for.
The second half of the book is about life on the outside. You might think it would be anticlimactic, but no: it’s equally compelling. Much of the outside story reflects the imperfection of person-to-person communication, made more striking by the gulf between the normal world and the world Jack and Ma have lived in. Well-meaning medical staff and relatives find that their ideas and language fall short of what is needed. Ma is hostile and defensive; Jack can’t bear to be parted from her, because she is his world. The outside is not at this stage a paradise: it is strange and difficult.
Jack’s learning about the world is poignant and often funny. He has never worn shoes; he has not been socialized to think in terms of what the world thinks is appropriate behaviour for a five-year-old boy. His relating of what other people say and do points out absurdities in a delicious way, like an anthropologist describing the mores of a newly discovered society:
“Maybe one that’s not pink?” says Paul to her. “What about this one, Jack, pretty cool or what?” He’s holding up a bag of Spiderman. I give Dora a big hug. I think she whispers, “Hola, Jack.” Deanne tries to take the Dora bag but I won’t let her. “It’s OK, I just have to pay the lady. You’ll get it back in two seconds.”
It’s not two seconds. It’s 37.
Ma’s reintroduction is much harder. She is angry and she makes mistakes. In the audiobook, we hear Ma’s voice (and others’ voices), though only when Jack is present. A lot of what we pick up is through Jack: “Ma twists her mouth,” “Ma puffs out her breath,” “Ma is mad.”
The actors are stellar. Michal Friedman* as Jack is flawless. Ellen Archer is Ma; Suzanne Toren and Robert Petkoff play a whole cast of characters, from Nick to Doctor Clay, Officer Oh to Nurse Noreen, Grandma and Real Grandpa and Stepa, and more. In hindsight, I wish I’d read the book and then listened to the audiobook: there’s not much point in doing things the other way around as the audio interpretation would override the reading experience.
Room was a significant literary success: winner of the 2010 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize among other prizes and a finalist for the Booker. Those successes are entirely deserved. Emma Donoghue has taken on a monster and she gives us glimpses of the evil that lies in the background but, by telling the story from Jack’s perspective, she focuses primarily on the relationship between mother and child and the absurdities of human behaviour.