I’ve never read a book that is compelling both in the sense of it being fascinating and borderline repulsive in its topic. Not until I entered ‘Room’.
This is a unique psychological thriller of a book, dealing with the horrors concealed in our own back gardens, the skeletons in the closet that are desperate to break free into the world. What Donoghue does brilliantly is show the struggle behind Jack’s integration with the world. It isn’t all sunshine and playdates: he feels scared, insecure and utterly unprepared for the vastness of life. His world is devastated and has to be rebuilt from the ground up. Likewise, those having to make space for Jack in their previously clearly defined world are shown as struggling; Grandma demonstrates this perfectly in a blend of love and exhaustion at having to explain a world that, sometimes, it is difficult to make sense of. Our idioms, our customs, our social skills…things we take for granted are alien territory, and the consequences are clearly expressed and not entirely resolved in order to show the lifelong journey Jack has only just begun in ‘Room’.
In places, I did find ‘Room’ uncomfortable to read. It’s starkness, particularly when seen through the eyes of a child, is what makes it haunt and disturb the reader. Things such as the ‘creaks on the bed’ and ‘having some’ are topics we don’t expect to hear children discuss, and the innocence with which Jack explains these activities attempts to break down barriers between our accepted conventions and the desperation to survive in a twisted situation. Personally, I couldn’t deal with this: it physically repels me to think of a child being subject to the horrors Jack experiences, although I understand why Donoghue did this; it allowed the extremity of their situation to become apparent. There were also unnecessary things meant to add to the childlike stream of consciousness but actually sexualising the book in a slight but uncalled for manner: Penis standing up in the morning, touching his cousin just seemed a step too far in Jack’s explorations when there were so many basic things for him to explore and learn about first.
What was lacking, in this story, was the adult voice. Yes, it takes great skill to maintain a difficult viewpoint in a novel (not always done successfully in this, particularly when going through complex psychological issues), but I think the novel was lacking Ma’s voice. Throughout reading this, all I could think about was how this was affecting Ma, what made her human before and after, how could she decide to leave her son…The fact that she’s never named enhanced these wonderings; she is dehumanised both by Old Nick, and this continues with her reintegration into the world. Yes, it shows she is the centre of Jack’s universe and defined by her horrific experiences, but it would have been nice for her to be drip-fed through as she regained her post-Room identity.
What also bothered me was the lack of Old Nick. Granted, you don’t want to waste page time on such a monster, but Room seemed too abstract without the motivation behind their captivity. It also seemed highly unlikely that a man who had constructed a highly sophisticated prison vault would fall for Jack’s ‘death’. A man who was suspicious of Jeep falling from Shelf in the night as an attack would surely be suspicious of this development? Maybe his fear of evading suspicion might have prompted an untested reaction, but I felt it lacked substance.
Finally, I think the difficulty with a novel like this is time: how far do you span events to give a glimpse into such a complex situation? I think too much was crammed into the three-week period the novel covered. It either needed to be glimpses at the stages of Jack’s development, or coping with those first few days of freedom. Too much happened too quickly for a child who hadn’t got the skills to cope with the world, particularly away from Ma. Yes, Ma’s desperation for normality is understandable and her frustration with Jack’s reluctance is a source of great empathy; but Grandma’s decision to take Jack home and throw him into the world was too much to rush through in the final throws of the novel. Jack is having to take life one step at a time: it would be more interesting to see how he takes these steps, rather than running before we can walk. Jack’s bum-walk down the stairs was a brilliant of example of how this should have been developed: he couldn’t cope with stairs, how does he learn to? His pride in telling others he has achieved it is beautiful, and something that could have been developed in a variety of ways.
All being said, this is a book that grabs you and compels you to complete it instantly: you need to know how the duo survive, you need to know how they grow and develop and adjust. It is this fascination with how we explain and explore the world that ultimately makes ‘Room’ a must-read, although it’s nightmare-esque qualities might make it a one read book.