THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY?
This seems to be a real Marmite book (love it or loathe it, with no fence-sitting), so I'm going to mix my metaphors: I bit the bullet, to see which way the wind was blowing and was surprised to find myself sitting on the empty fence. I was very undecided about stars, but there are many much better books I've given 3*, so this gets 2*, even though there was, on reflection, more to it than I first thought. The quality of the writing is not sufficient for 3*.
Overall, I think it’s poorly written (exacerbated by the way Donoghue tries to use unusual language for specific effect), but it is something of a page-turner, it’s quite a quick read (unless you overempathise, get depressed, and need a break) and it does contain some interesting ideas, especially in the second half about aspects of coping with “freedom” (though I am unsure how many are taken directly from news reports and interviews with former captives, and how many are her own).
The situation is well-known: a twenty six year old woman, “Ma”, is living with her five year old son, Jack, in a tiny locked room. She has been there since she was abducted aged nineteen, and the story is narrated by Jack. They have daily visits from their captor, who brings meagre supplies, though they do have a TV and half a dozen books. Jack thinks reality is everything in their room, and that everything “in TV” is pretend.
The first half of the book is set in Room (yes, with a capital letter and no article (“a” or “the”), like most of the few objects in their lives), and the second half is on the outside. It is clearly influenced by the recent news stories of Natasha Kampusch and Jaycee Lee Duggard etc, and that potentially prurient aspect did hold me back from reading this book for a long time.
LANGUAGE AND WRITING
Right from the start, I found the narration annoying - not because it's by a 5-year old, but because he's such an unconvincing
5-year old. For example, he has a very good vocabulary for his age (fair enough), and yet there are a few really basic words that he seems not to know (instead of "a man" or "the woman" he refers to "a he" and "the she" - except on one occasion when he unaccountably gets it right), and he often gets irregular past tenses and word order wrong, in the way that children younger than five often do (“I winned”, “we knowed”, “I brung”, “why you don’t like” and to a driver, “may you go us please to…”). Furthermore, he repeatedly makes these errors despite his mother's diligence in correcting his grammar and the fact he watches TV.
It’s almost as if you can see Donoghue weighing up the need for Jack to be intelligent and insightful enough to tell the story in an engaging way (which, to a large extent, he does) with the need to tick certain boxes to make it clear he is just a small child. Similarly, we’re expected to believe that Jack points out “a dog crossing a road with a human on a rope” and thinks someone lighting up is trying to set himself on fire, even though he’s had TV and a mother who has tried to teach him about the (fictitious) world.
The fact Jack is still breastfed is not surprising: it’s comforting for both of them. What is surprising though is that the word itself seems to be taboo (instead, he talks about “having some”, without ever saying what), and yet he’s happy to use the words “penis” and “vagina”, and is open about bathing with his mother. That may sound like nit-picking, but it’s an example of the sort of thing that frustrated me. I just didn’t feel Donoghue had really thought it through thoroughly. If you’re going to play with language to make your point, you need to be able to do so convincingly.
The book is in five sections, though really it falls more naturally into two: inside and outside.
The relationship between mother and son is touching and the book opens by establishing the routines and rituals of their restricted life, including the almost liturgical way they say “good night” to all their (few) possessions: “Good night, Room… good night, Rug” etc. The creativity required to raise a child in a confined space with such limited resources are impressive, too (they blow their eggs, so the whole shells can be threaded to make a snake, and do PE using their limited furniture as gym props).
Initially, and in some ways, their life doesn’t seem as bad as you might expect, and even the first appearance of their captor (“Old Nick”) is relatively benign. That reflects the way Ma is raising Jack in the most positive way she can. Of course, we know something of the real horrors of the story, and they are discussed, though never in graphic detail, in part because Jack’s comprehension is limited, and in part because of Ma's success in shielding him from the nature of the situation.
I thought the escape was badly done, but much better is the when, leading up to it, Ma has to explain to Jack that what he’s seen “in TV” is real. They go through a confusing process of “unlying” as she tries to prepare him for what might follow an escape.
Once outside, it’s superficially about the practicalities of adjusting to the real world, but really it’s questioning the nature and price of freedom. I found this part had more interesting ideas, but contained more implausibility of plot (though I’m no expert in such matters) and very flat new characters. In particular, the method and speed with which the police locate Room was absurd, and also some of the logistics, practicalities and oversights of those charged with their care and settlement on the outside were dodgy, such as the first planned trip for these traumatised celebrities being to a museum with an uncle whom Jack had only met once!
WHAT IS FREEDOM?
The reader roots for Ma and Jack to escape, and they do (no spoiler – the book blurb tells you). Hooray! But of course they soon discover a new form of captivity: medical/psychiatric, hiding from fame, and so on. And this is where it gets interesting and starts to feel more plausible. Jack’s only knowledge of outside is from occasional TV programmes, and Ma’s is from seven years ago, when she was a carefree student, rather than a traumatised mother. Jack has to discover the world, and Ma has to (re)discover a new version of herself; she tells Jack, “I know you need me to be your ma but I’m having to remember how to be me as well”, to which he replies, “But I thought the her and the Ma were the same”. Similarly, having more
, can leave one feeling impoverished: Jack is puzzled when Ma cautions him to be careful of something her brother gave to her, “I didn’t know it was hers-not-mine. In Room everything was ours.”
Some of the things they struggle to cope with are not ones that would initially have occurred to me (germs, sunburn, stairs), and one effect is to make it almost as if Jack has acquired Asperger’s syndrome: he can’t filter the multiple stimuli of a busy world; doesn’t understand social conventions, etiquette, and privacy; is confused by relationships and pronouns (“The ‘you’ means Ma, not me, I’m getting good at telling”); takes common idioms literally (such as “I’m afraid so” and “get his act together”, but surely some cropped up from Ma and TV?); doesn’t like being touched or having to wear shoes; is borderline agoraphobic; increases his counting-his-teeth stress-relieving tactic; is uncoordinated from poor spatial perception; and feels insecure without routine. Jack asks, “But what’s the rule?”, to which he is told “There is no rule.” That’s a liberating idea to Ma, but scary to Jack. He misses Room and his few possessions because it’s all he’d ever known; Ma, understandably, wants to leave it all behind both literally and in even from conversation and memory. When he has nightmares, the doctor says “Now you’re safe, it’s [the brain] gathering up all those scary thoughts you don’t need any more, and throwing them out”, but Jack disagrees, “actually he’s got it backwards. In Room I was safe and Outside is the scary.”
Another aspect is how Ma’s family react. The girl they knew – and thought dead – has been replaced by someone similar, but different, and they have Jack to contend with. Ma loves him unconditionally, despite his parentage, but if you were her mother or father, how would you feel about this constant reminder of what happened?
To sum up, this wasn’t as prurient as I feared, and it was very thought-provoking, but it could have been SO much better.