Author: Emma Donoghue
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: June 2015
Be sure you’re ready before reading this book. My wife enjoyed it several years ago, but now we have a kid. I read it with our little guy in mind, and it was sickening in a can’t-stop-reading kind of way. I also started it the week I had a cold, so the first half of the book was a rough go. If you haven’t read it, Room is about a five-year-old boy raised only in a single room. Just be ready for that. For those who have read it, let’s discuss.
This book is like two stories in one, split right down the middle. Thank goodness for that, because I needed the rush of relief after the first half. Even though it was tough at times, I think what made it tolerable was the character of the mother (“Ma”). She was never abusive to her son, and you could argue that the boy, Jack, lived a pretty decent life (mostly because he didn’t realize what he was missing out on). The book would have been simply intolerable if Ma was any level of crazy, though that would have been justified under the circumstances. The way it’s written, the reader gets to align with the mother-son duo against the all-too-realistic villain of Old Nick. It’s highly claustrophobic, yet there’s hope.
In the first half, the chapter called “Unlying” is the most fascinating. Through Jack’s narration, we learn his trains of thought, such as “But when I want something I want it always, like chocolates, I never ate a chocolate too many times.” Plenty of his observations, like this one, could come from the brain of any young child. It’s when Ma has to revise her stories to teach him about the real, tangible world outside that he struggles: “So hospitals are real too, and motorbikes. My head’s going to burst from all the new things I have to believe.” In this sequence there’s also a great riff on a Bible line that’s perfectly constructed: “When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything.”
Part two is a lot less propulsive, because it’s about their life after the escape. But it’s still interesting to read about how such a scenario might play out. Jack’s world expands into hugeness, and in some ways he handles it better than Ma. He’s tentative about the unknown, but grasps at wisdom when he admits, “I don’t want there to be bad stories and me not know them.” He sees the value, the intrinsic contribution to his survival, of accepting truth over lies.
It’s a moving book, but you’ve got to tread lightly. It’s probably one that’s best to read well before or long after you have a young child.