It’s 12:13, so it can be lunch. My favorite bit of the prayer is the daily bread. I’m the boss of play but Ma’s the boss of meals, like she doesn’t let us have cereal for breakfast and lunch and dinner in case we’d get sick and anyway that would use it up too fast. When I was zero and one, Ma used to chop and chew up my food for me, but then I got all my twenty teeth and I can gnash up anything. This lunch is tuna on crackers, my job is to roll back the lid of the can because Ma’s wrist can’t manage it.
It is no easy feat to write convincingly in the voice of a child, let alone a child who has only lived in one room, with one person, for all of his five years. It’s not even easy to fully remember what it was like to be a child, though we were all there once. Taking on a “damaged” child is a challenge for any writer, and entering that child’s thought process and imagination takes a great amount of craft, control, and restraint. Emma Donoghue has achieved a remarkable thing with Room’s narrator, Jack, who must face his biggest fears in order to enter our world.
Few have undergone the traumas Jack is subject to, but in some ways we can all relate to his basic psychological qualms. When the novel opens, on Jack’s fifth birthday, he is perfectly content in the 11×11′ Room into which he was born. Everything in Room has a name, gender, place, purpose, and meaningful history. Take Rug: the stain from Jack’s birth is still visible on her surface, a reminder to Jack of his important entry. Ma, at 26, is his only “real” companion (excluding his friends Dora the Explorer, Dylan the Digger, and Spongebob), and she is an intricate part of his sense of self. Together they read the same five books, watch the same TV channels, play the same games, make the same foods, and follow the exact same routine every day. At nine o’clock each night, after Jack goes to bed inside Wardrobe, a mysterious man named Old Nick “beeps” the door’s state-of-the-art combination lock. He “squeaks Bed” over 200 times, and sometimes causes Ma to be “Gone” the next day, when she won’t get out of bed and Jack must take care of himself. Ma provides little to no explanation for who Old Nick actually is, and though he brings food and clothes for “Sundaytreat,” Jack knows he’s never allowed to let Nick see him.
Jack’s confusing yet simple world takes a dramatic turn when Old Nick becomes increasingly angry at Ma and cuts off Room’s power. Little by little, Ma begins to explain things to Jack – things about which she previously lied. She tells him that the “planets” they watch on TV are all real places, and that one time she herself was a little kid too, with parents and a house. Jack, who has never set foot beyond Room and who believes he can send Dora letters by flushing them down the toilet, has a very difficult time grasping the nature of time and reality. It’s only when he sees an airplane through Skylight, Room’s only window, that things begin to sink in. It’s all real in Outside, everything there is, because I saw the plane in the blue between the clouds. Ma and me can’t go there because we don’t know the secret code, but it’s real all the same.
Jack’s concept of reality is further shaken when Ma tells him that Old Nick kidnapped her seven years ago, while she was at college. Old Nick is not only her captor, but Jack’s biological father. She explains how she tried to free herself from Room many different ways, but not since Jack was born, out of fear of what Old Nick might do. Now, with Old Nick out of work, Jack getting older, and tensions between Ma and Nick mounting, she decides it’s time to brainstorm a new plan. Ma tells Jack: “I brought you into Room, I didn’t mean to but I did it and I’ve never once been sorry…and tonight I’m going to get you out.”
The escape plan forces Jack to bear the burden of facing Outside for the very first time, and without his Ma. He must rescue himself and his mother through a series of terrifying and disturbing events, which forces the reader to wonder how these traumatic moments will impact him later on. Surely, Donoghue must have been inspired, or at least aware, of such real events as Austria’s Natascha Kampusch, who escaped her captor after being held in a cellar for eight years, or seven-year-old Erica Pratt who freed herself after her abduction in Philadelphia.
Comparisons to real-life events continue when Jack enters the next phase of his existence; that is, after he is placed into the hands of doctors, therapists, reporters, lawyers, and grandparents. The story is a newsworthy sensation, and the media paints Jack as both a modern-day hero and a feral child, focusing on his long hair, aversion to shoes, and the fact that he can’t properly walk down stairs. One need only to think of Genie, the girl who was tied to a potty-chair by her deranged father. When discovered, Genie had the appearance of a seven-year-old, weighing just 59 pounds, even though she was 13; most shocking of all, she could not speak and could hardly even walk.
The adults in Jack’s new world, continually surprised by his level of intelligence and articulation, expect Jack to be mentally or physically disabled. Donoghue provides realistic commentary on a society obsessed with documenting and emphasizing tragedy. Adults ask Jack for his autograph, unauthorized photos end up on the Internet, and he’s nicknamed “Bonsai Boy” by the press. When Ma, whose real name Jack never acknowledges, is interviewed, the reporter announces that she still breastfeeds Jack. Ma smartly responds: “In all of this, that’s the shocking detail?”
What’s most unnerving and also endearing about Room is Jack’s inner psychosis, and how his perception of the world, and his place within, is so rapidly in flux. This is perhaps Room’s most relatable aspect: no matter the situation, all children undergo separation anxiety from their parents, and all must come to the realization that they are individuals capable of making decisions and eventually looking after themselves. Jack often deals with scary things by repeatedly counting his teeth, a common method of distraction and a means to make order out of a world that makes no sense. As children, we have little to no control over where and how we live, and who and what we are exposed to; Jack’s story allows readers to reflect on such changes in their own lives and how they coped. The real world will naturally change Jack, and all of us, but so too can we all change the world.Visit: Emma Donoghue | Little, Brown and Company
Purchase: Powell’s Books | Amazon