Published: 2010
Author: Emma Donoghue


The harrowing story of a child born into horror


Like lots of people there’s part of me that believes that I could write a best-selling novel.  I read the papers or watch the news and get inspiration for stories but I never actually seem to get anywhere with writing them.  That wasn’t the case for writer Emma Donoghue, who was clearly inspired by horrific experiences such as those of Elizabeth Fritzl, Natasha Kampusch and Jaycee Lee Dugard when planning and writing Room, her astonishing Man Booker shortlisted novel.

The story is told by five year-old Jack who lives with his Ma in a tiny room which he has never left in his life.  Jack and his mother are devoted to one another and play games, learn to cook, exercise and watch television together.  Jack is unaware of the horror into which he has been born, however the reader soon works out that Ma has been kidnapped and imprisoned by a rapist and Jack is the product of this captivity.

As Ma and Jack encounter freedom and Jack meets his extended family for the first time the new life seems more alien and frightening than the world that his mother had created for him.

Donoghue’s decision to make a five-year old boy the narrator of such a powerful story was an incredibly brave one but thankfully it works perfectly.  There is something about Jack’s innocence and lack of comprehension of the situation which makes the scenes where “Old Nick” appears and rapes Ma even more horrific than a graphic description would.  Ma may shield Jack from the worst aspects of her life but Donoghue doesn’t protect her readers.  We know exactly what is happening but don’t have the option of sleeping in the wardrobe to avoid the dreadful truth, nor can we reach out and remove the two captives as we long to.

Ma does what she can to create a normal childhood for Jack and while Jack is relatively content with his life we know that the situation is in no way normal.  Nor is Ma is normal girl.

Ma (we never learn her real name) is an intelligent young woman who is only able to hold on to her sanity by caring for Jack and creating a routine for his life.  She endures times of deep depression and sadness and occasionally slips into a catatonic state when life becomes too difficult for her to endure.

Jack has created an image of a relatively healthy mother and child and it comes as a surprise when they are described on their release as “catatonic” and “malnourished”.  Ma and Jack both struggle to cope with life outside the room.  I realised at this point how much I had been taken in by the world Ma had created for Jack and how different life would be for the characters.  I understood even more the fears they have at their new “normal” life.  There was even a little part of me that wondered if they would be happier back in the room with their familiar routine.

This is an exceptional book told by an engaging central character who convinces thoroughly as a five year old, but the child-like narration doesn’t dumb down the horror of the story.  I have no idea if Room would resonate with the girls whose experiences served as inspiration or if the story is in any way true to life but it is a fantastic novel which I urge everyone to read as soon as they can.

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