Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma Donoghue was shortlisted for the Booker last year, it didn't win but it was the one that raised a lot of interest, and the one that I read about and thought 'I *really* want to read that!' I am sure I was still about 17th on a waiting list of 35 for this book but it turned up at the library for me yesterday. I finished it this afternoon.

I am not sure how to write about this book because you really don't want to give any of the actual story away. It is the story of Ma and Jack and the Room that they live in. It is told by Jack. He is five. He describes the intricacies of their life together and it soon becomes apparent how they come to be in Room, and that this place is all that Jack has ever known. Their life is both utterly horrific and utterly normal. It is a story about the bond between mother and child, written by an author who obviously has real true empathy for the child's perspective as Jack is totally credible as a character and the voice of the story. The more I have thought about it since I finished reading the more I felt that it is not so much a story about their terrible situation as about children and how they understand the world. For Jack Room is his world. For him everything in Room is named with a capital letter; Table, Wardrobe, Mirror etc. When Ma talks these things do not have capital letters, because to her they are just things amongst so many other things. She is the only person in his world and everything he knows and understands is through her and he trusts her utterly. Jack has a certain precociousness considering the limiting environment but this does not make him less believable because his level of emotional maturity continually reminds you how young he is meant to be. Like most young children Jack has only a partial sense of himself as having a separate existence but the story is pitched just perfectly because he is just at the age where this understanding of 'separateness' starts to develop. Having spent many intensive years caring for my own young children his voice felt very authentic; the way he spoke, the kind of things he asked, the things that frightened or consoled him, the struggle to understand and make sense of the world around him.

"It's 12.13, so it can be lunch. My favourite bit of the prayer is the daily bread. I'm the boss of play but Ma is the boss of meals, like she doesn't let us have cereal for breakfast and lunch and dinner incase we'd get sick and anyway that would use it up too fast. When I was zero and one, Ma used to chop and chew up my food for me, but now I'got all my twenty teeth and I can gnash up anything. This lunch is tuna on crackers, my job is to roll back the lid of the can because Ma's wrist can't manage it.
I'm a bit jiggly so Ma says let's play Orchestra, where we run around seeing what noises we can bang out of things. I drum on Table and Ma goes knock knock on the legs of Bed, then floomf floomf on the pillows, I use a fork and spoon on Door ding ding and our toes go bam on Stove, but my favourite is stomping on the pedal of Trash because that pops his lid open with a bing." (p.16)

The style is very straightforward and almost simplistic, and from this quote, and after a few pages, you begin to worry that it is going to become monotonous, but if you persevere it becomes part of what holds your attention and draws you in, because Jack is a good story teller. There are no embellished descriptions, just things that happen, and his and Ma's reactions to them.

The story itself is engaging and I really needed to find out how things resolved, but in the end l felt it is a novel with two lessons, firstly it is about loss of innocence and growing up, that it is difficult whatever, and secondly that children's struggles to make sense of the world in the best way they can is mostly hampered by the 'assistance' of the adults around them, few adults really take the time to listen to what a child is trying to say. All in all quite a unique book. I have read several people say they could not finish it ... I could not put it down.

To explain what I mean I just wanted to quote a little example which will spoil the story. When Jack escapes and is trying to explain to the policewoman what happened she actually stops her own thoughts and really listens to him, and in doing so can work out the journey he has just taken in the truck and thus how to find where he came from:

" 'Jack,' she says, 'you told me you were supposed to jump out of the truck the first time it slowed down?'
'Yeah but I was still in Rug, then I unpeeled the banana but I wasn't scave enough.' I'm looking at Officer Oh and I'm talking at the same time. 'But after the third time stopping, the truck went wooooo -'
'It went what?'
'Like -' I show her. 'All a different way.'
'It turned'
'Yeah, and I got banged and he, Old Nick, he climbed out all mad and that's when I jumped.'
'Bingo.' Officer Oh claps her hands.
'Huh?' says the man police.
'Three stop signs and a turn. Left or right?' She waits. 'Never mind, great job, Jack' " (p.149)


  1. I've been thinking of reading this one... but putting it off because I'm a little skeptical about how realistic the writing in the voice of a 5 year old is. I've also wondered if it would be monotonous, but most reviewers like yourself have said it's not boring at all, so I suppose it might be worth a try...

  2. Hi Martine,
    it was so good to have your response at the homage blog...
    your wonderful blog on books reminds me if i wasn't so taken with travelling the blogosphere and finding visual treasure and ideas... then I might take your suggestions for good reads!
    My 80 yr old mother goes to 2 booksclubs so I live vicariously through that...especially when sometimes bookclub is held here where we live and I can listen avidly from my studio to the discussion!
    best wishes,

  3. This sounds fascinating, I've enjoyed other books by the author....

  4. thanks so much for offering to lend me your book Martine - I can offer you a poetry mag in return - in a forgetful moment I bought one that I already subscribe to, so I'd like the spare to go to a good home! Shall we meet in a Chorlton coffee house for a hostage exchange?

  5. Battery P great! Could thurs or fri work for you Martine? If so you name a time as both are good for me anytime after 2ish

  6. excellent!! see you there :@)


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