Room is a blending of Dr. Seuss and Alfred Hitchcock.
The story unfolds very slowly for the first quarter of the book. The setting is a single room in which two people are held captive, a mother in her early 20s and her five year old son. They have been prisoners for a long time; she for over 7 years, he for his entire life.
The story describes how the mother tries to keep her sanity by creative interaction with her son. They play games, physical ones, verbal ones, ones which try their imagination and creativity. The mother, always referred to as ‘Ma’ by her son, Jack, displays great love and understanding for her son. She recognizes that the prison is unnatural for her son and so she tries to create a world within their single room prison that is close as possible to the real world.
Ma’s dialogue with Jack is in proper, grammatically correct English. Jack, however, speaks very well for a five year old but often intersperses his communication with words which seem more apropos to a five year old. Some of the words are creatively blended combinations perfectly evoking the meaning of two other words, such as ‘scave’ for brave and scared meaning he is afraid but will continue with what he is doing bravely.
The room’s furniture is anthropomorphised into personalities with names: TABLE, WALL, BED, WARDROBE, RUG, and so on. Jack refers to these things almost as though they are living friends. To him, they are supportive allies to his life within the soundproof, isolated prison constructed by ‘Old Nick,’ their middle aged captor.
Old Nick provides his prisoners with all the needs of life: food, clothing, toys, and even special treats such as candies, crayons, paper, pencils and such which he brings on ‘Sundaytreats day’. It is a dismal, seemingly hopeless sort of life for the imprisoned duo but eventually, the mother devises an escape plan with Jack as its chief protagonist.
The escape is very suspenseful as one wonders will Jack, a very frightened five year old, succeed in carrying out Ma’s plan.
The remainder of the story is a narrative of how the duo escape and interact with the outside world to which Jack has had very limited exposure through the TV they had in their prison room. Though Jack has lived apart from the real world for his entire life, he is quite well educated, with a surprisingly good vocabulary and good exposure to a number of books such as Alice in Wonderland. The TV has also kept him in touch with the outside world though he does not fully comprehend everything about it.
When they escape, it is interesting to see how Jack displays an innocence or naivety quite logical for a young boy, particularly one who has been isolated from the real world for all his life.
The ebb and flow of the ROOM is along the lines of slow, suspenseful, slow, slower and slowest. It is a incredible challenge to keep the reader attentive with just two characters in a very limited setting as in the first part of the book, less of a problem when they have escaped and have to interact with outside world people as our real world thinking is given free rein now. We can easily relate to the two medical personnel and how they react to the two leading characters.
The story concludes with Ma and Jack moving into their own apartment supported by a professional psychological network of doctors and social workers and the hope that life will develop normally for them both from now forward.
What I liked
Donoghue writes with tremendous creativity, establishing a plausible ‘ROOM’ life for the mother and son: how they played games requiring imagination and logic; how they created physical games to keep themselves as fit as possible; how the mother was conscientious about Jack’s nutrition, hygiene and physical well-being.
The book is a psychological, sociological and emotional thriller presenting a love story between a caring, protective mother and her loving, intensely dependent son.
The author paints a completely believable world, one where the prisoners live a life that suits each’s particular mind-set and needs. For Jack, the room is his entire world with safety and security that he feels is like a haven. For his mother, the room is a prison where she must support, nurture and raise her son as normally as possible. Donoghue makes that world very credible.
The author is excellent in her development of the characters of Jack and his mother. Jack is the inquisitive, curious child who always enjoys a variety of stimulations, intellectual and physical. His mother is a devoted, determined nurturing person who wants to give her son as much as possible in a severely limited world. It is an intriguing and captivating story.
Like Hitchcock, Donoghue lets the reader’s imagination fill in the void where her narrative omits greater detail as when Old Nick beds the mother and Jack shelters himself in the closet counting his teeth with his tongue while counting the number of squeaks emitted by the bed springs. Pure Alfred Hitchcock. The readers’ imaginations can paint as horrible picture as they personally choose. How much more horrible it can be once Jack sees the bruises on his mother’s neck.
What I disliked
At first, I found the story a very tedious read until I inserted myself into their world. Then, the story felt more acceptable. It captured my imagination. I could picture all that was happening and I found it fascinating; how a loving, caring mother had to live in a very restricted world and yet develop that world so that it offered her son limitless boundaries. She created escapes for him, escapes using imagination, reinforced by books and television. The dislike I first felt was transformed into begrudged admiration.
I cannot pinpoint why I disliked the ending. Though it made total sense, the ending felt as if the wind had died in the sails, as if the story simply lost its steam. I cannot imagine a better way of ending the story, maybe it needed an epilogue set 10 or 15 years later but that is being presumptuous, foretelling the future, predicting where life would go for these two people after their prisoner existence.
I was uncomfortable with some of the physical aspects of life in the room; the breast feeding was particularly troubling though when the mother chastises others for their critical view of it, I too felt that I was put in my place by her words.
Jack’s great curiosity but lack of ever dreaming about escaping their prison was challenging. His feelings of security and safety with life in the room were hard to accept.
Would I recommend the book?
With some reservation, I think the book can be an enjoyable read for many people. However, as Donoghue intentionally omits detail where she wants the reader to develop it on their own might cause some stress or anxiety for readers with very vivid imaginations. Additionally, readers who are particularly sensitive to reading about emotional trauma and psychological conflicts may find parts of the book quite frightening.
Donoghue has written a very engaging, captivating and entertaining book. I recommend it for the pleasure of reading the powerful creativity of a skilful writer. Her painting of a five year old’s mentality is intriguing. Her descriptions of how daily life would have developed feels very realistic. Her dialogues are not only plausible but effective in affecting the reader’s own points of view.
A terrific read !