_____________, Room, Picador, 2011 (my edition, pictured top right)
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I began this novel knowing nothing of its plot, only that it was narrated by a five year-old. Though I understood early what was transpiring, I would recommend that readers interested in Room avoid reviews and discussion and approach the novel blindly. For me, at least, it was a great experience. Having opened with this statement, however, I warn you that my approach to reviewing the novel necessitates spoilers. I will however write it with the assumption that readers have read the book, and thereby not bother giving back-story or plot descriptions.
Trapped in their small square room, Ma and Jack experience two separate realities. To five year-old Jack ROOM is his entire universe, and the universe of that room is experienced as another four-letter word, WOMB. To Jack the room is the safest possible place. He is linked twenty-four hours to his Ma and the world she has designed for him. In their room Jack is secure, happy, enclosed in a kind of prenatal state he does not wish to relinquish. It's as though the umbilical cord were still attached, and he is being fed all he requires for healthy development. Ma on the other hand experiences Room as a contrary four-letter word: JAIL. To her this is a prison where captor "Old Nick" has held her for seven years, given her the bare minimum to survive while regularly raping her. Jack and Ma, as tightly bound as they are, are ironically experiencing two separate realities. While Ma hopes only for release, Jack has difficulty in understanding why she would desire so desperately to leave such a comfortable, safe environment.
Their captor "Old Nick" also acts as the embodiment of each of their experiences. To Jack he is Saint Nicholas, as in Santa Claus, a semi-real being who brings them sundaytreat; a special requested item each Sunday. To Ma he is very much "Old Nick" in its form as a nickname for the devil, a purely evil entity driven by a demonic nature. Jack experiences Nick as a kind of benevolent yet odd stranger, while to Ma he is a monster.
When in the outside world, notions of four letters are dropped, as are any kind of consistency, as we experience the world as a chaotic jumble. While Ma withdraws from the world, Jack is reluctantly enmeshed within its hyper-reality. Donoghue makes it a point to have Jack innocently wonder whether the world is in fact real. His existential crisis is acute despite his age, with the world having turned upside down. Hamlet experienced a traumatic reality reversal, yet Jack copes without having to stage plays and getting his mother poisoned.
The plot point I find troubling is Ma's attempted suicide. With what she has gone through for seven years, five while protecting Jack, it isn't feasible that she would make such an attempt. This event, however, is necessitated by plot, as Jack needs to be on his own in order to gain his solo experiences and eventual acceptance of the new world. In light of its need and the difficulty in achieving it, this criticism is fairly minor.
On an irrelevant side-note:
Since becoming a father eleven months ago, I have read three novels dealing with children in tragic settings, the other two being Dan Simmons's Song of Kali and Cormac McCarthy's The Road (not to mention other works involving children in less than desirable circumstances, such as the graphic novel Crossed by Garth Ellis and Jacen Burrows, also published in 2010, and more recently Joyce Carol Oates's intense novella "The Corn Maiden" from 2005). A friend and horror fan with a four year-old tells me he cannot read anything featuring children in threatening circumstances, not since the birth of his son. When my son was a newborn I sat rocking him while he slept and read Song of Kali aloud, despite the novel featuring a kidnapped newborn. Yet there is something more disturbing in the child's circumstance in Room than in the other works, and I believe that, though the circumstance themselves in The Road are as extreme, there are challenging notions of parenthood that to me were more thought-provoking. In McCarthy's novel focus on survival is constant and involves a good deal of improvisation, while in Donoghue's novel the focus is primarily on child-rearing.