Thursday, 5 July 2012

Review: Room, by Emma Donoghue

Wow. I seem to have a skill at picking the most depressing books at the moment. Room is possibly one of the most harrowing and disturbing stories I have ever read.

Jack is five, and he lives an an 11ft square room with his Ma. He has never been outside, and the room is the only world he knows. It is his entire universe. His only access to the outside world is through watching TV, and he is not aware that these things actually exist somewhere. Through Jack's innocent and stilted narration, and his conversations with Ma as she tries hard to explain the truth in a way that he will understand, the reader learns that Ma was kidnapped and locked in this room seven years ago, and that her captor frequently visits to rape her and to drop off food and supplies. 

Ma (we never find out her real name) is a wonderful mother and does the best she can in the horrible circumstances. She has taught Jack to read and write to a very high standard, she makes sure Jack exercises and stays healthy, and she helps Jack to make toys and games out of what little they have. She is determined to escape and has a regular schedule of flashing the lights on and off to try and attract attention, and shouting for help (which she disguises from Jack by pretending it is a game). But after their electricity is switched off for several days as punishment, Ma knows they must act fast if they want to get out alive. Together, she and Jack form a plan that will allow them to escape. This involves explaining to Jack that there is a whole world outside the room, something which he finds conceptually very difficult to understand.

The plan works, and Jack and Ma find themselves free at last, but both of them suffer horribly from the sudden change. Ma is reunited with her family, who believed she was dead and have already grieved and moved on with their lives. She struggles to adapt to normal life again after missing so much, and has a breakdown after an insensitive TV interview. For Jack on the other hand, everything is new and scary. He doesn't understand how to behave around other people, and is terrified of everything. Most of all, he wants to go back and live in the room where everything felt safe and familiar, and he can't understand why Ma doesn't feel the same. He wants all his things back, the dirty carpet and his old cutlery and damaged books, but Ma never wants to look at them again.

The whole story is told from Jack's point of view, but through his observation we see the damage this trauma has done not only to him, but to his mother and her long-lost family. It is a very thought-provoking and challenging read, and it left me feeling emotionally drained. The story ends on a fairly positive note, although it is clear that many more challenges lie ahead for Jack and Ma.

Room has to get a 5/5, because it is incredibly well written and researched, and has been the most emotionally affecting book I've read since The Book Thief. I would definitely recommend this book but I must warn you that there are some references to sexual and physical abuse which are pretty horrible despite being quite subtle. This is a book to be read in one sitting and then moped over for a few hours after, so set aside plenty of time and make sure you have a box of tissues handy, and maybe a nice Disney film or Rom-Com to watch afterwards to cheer yourself up!

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