Room by Emma Donoghue is a novel about a five-year-old boy and his mother who are being held captive in a shed. The mother does her utmost to provide her son a normal life while confined to this 11x11 space. For Jack, her son, this room is his entire world and his mother his only relationship and their captor, who brings them food and takes away their trash, is barely more than a ghost that comes in the night.
I didn’t want to read this book because of the story’s context. I didn’t want to read about a young woman being kidnapped and held captive with her young child nor did I want to read about this poor child being locked up in a room for the first five years of his life. I didn’t want to read it but some strange whim, a recommendation from a couple of people whose reading preferences I respect, invited me to reconsider. In the past, highly popular books like this have let me down tremendously (Memoirs of a Geisha, The Girl With the Pearl Earring, Twilight) so I wasn’t eager to be sucked in yet again. On the other hand, occasionally a popular book proves to be a pleasant surprise (Harry Potter, Life of Pi).
I’m glad I gave this book a chance. It is an utterly compelling read, refusing to be put down. Jack’s voice is so pure, so well written, that I caught myself thinking in his syntax when I was able to close the book for a little while. The choices the mother makes in caring for and protecting her son are heart rending. And as unbelievable as the story is (although why it should be so when we have new stories about abductions and such all of the time peppering the media is beyond my comprehension), Donoghue manages to make every decision, every moment, absolutely believable. Slamming the reader in media res, she pushes the story along at a pace that never lets up and I found myself aching for Jack to be okay, caught myself holding my breath in certain moments, wanting to tell the mother “no” in one moment and to wrap my arms around her in the next.
It isn’t often that I find a book that grips me the way this one does. It is not brilliant by any means but it is so interesting and told so well that it is quite likely unforgettable. Of course, I only just finished it so maybe a year from now I will have forgotten much of what I read.
Edit: I was unaware that this novel is based on a true-life story. Had I known I absolutely would not have read it. Although I realize that almost all fiction is somehow rooted in truth or it lacks any cathartic relevance, I find it disturbing when one person’s traumatic reality is used for entertainment and/or voyeuristic purposes. This does not discount the merit of this novel; although Donaghue did not draw solely upon her own imagination for the framework of the novel, there is enough she brings to the story that makes it her own. And this discomfort is a relatively new experience on my part, something that has come upon me with age. I still end up reading fact-inspired fiction or fiction that takes place during traumatic times but I am increasingly unable to do so as I get older. I don’t know why.