Emma Donoghue's 'Room': The Shelf Life Book Club
If you’ve read Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel Room, you’ll want to talk about it: As many critics have pointed out, the book is nothing if not unsettling. I’ll admit right off the bat that I wasn’t as impressed by the novel as others have been, including Entertainment Weekly’s own reviewer, who pinned an A on it. But I was certainly transfixed by the first half of the book–so much so that maybe nothing Donoghue did in the second half could have satisfied me. Anyway, I’ll give you my thoughts, and then encourage you to let fly with your own. If you haven’t read Room yet, this is your last chance to jump ship before spoilers start rearing their heads. And do read it, by the way–it’s the rare book worth fighting over.
OK, so let’s talk about the tense, claustrophobic, extraordinary premise of the novel: A young mother is raising her 5-year-old boy, named Jack, in a single room. The boy knows nothing whatsoever about the outside world, and, in a technical feat that truly knocked me out, he narrates the novel. Early on, we don’t know why or how Ma and Jack wound up confined to a single room. I wondered–maybe hoped is a better word–that they lived in some futuristic, Margaret Atwood-y dystopia. But of course the backstory turns out to be much more grim and real and immediate: Ma has been imprisoned for years by a man who repeatedly rapes her. The man has impregnated twice. The first child did not survive. The second child is Jack, who sleeps (or tries to) in a wardrobe as his “father” returns to rape his mother regularly. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that, thanks to Donoghue’s extraordinary prose, all this is told in the most elliptical and poetic way imaginable. Otherwise, who could tear through pages filled with such horrors?
I loved that, as readers, we were essentially like Jack: we had no idea what the world outside the Room was like either, or whether or not we’d ever see it. For my money, Donoghue kept us locked indoors exactly as long as was bearable. I was ready to see what was out there, and of course I wanted to see Jack and his mom free. The scene where Jack’s mom tells him precisely how he can escape and get help–and the following sequence where he actually pulls it off–are riveting, and will play like gangbusters when the book’s adapted for a movie.
After the great escape, the novel sagged for me. I’ve read or seen plenty of wild-child stories, so Jack’s entry into society felt familiar and dreary. And nothing could make me believe that Jack’s mom would try to kill herself and leave him alone in the world. Nothing. I don’t know why Donoghue spent so many pages building a nuanced and lovely bond between mother and son if she only wanted to pull the rug out. The last criticism I’ll toss out there is that–while I respect that the author wanted to avoid an obligatory courtroom drama–she never really found an ending that matched the power and inventiveness of her novel’s opening. For me, the book began as an A, but ended as a B. That leaves it at a B+, in my estimation.
Now, it’s your turn. So tell me: am I being too tough on Room? What’d you think of the second half of the novel? Is it too upsetting a book to recommend to friends, or is it cathartic? Were you as moved by the mother-son bound as I was? What other novels did it remind of you? And if you read this whole post but haven’t read the novel yet, does it sound like you want to?