This is a novel I dreaded reading. The story of a young woman imprisoned in a single room, told from the perspective of Jack, her five-year-old son, who was born into captivity and has never seen the outside world.
The person who recommended it to our book group had introduced the novel in terms of its philosophical implications, but I could only think of the depravity underpinning the plot. So, was I able to overcome my bias and finish the book?
The opening scene depicts the young narrator’s limited environment, where everyday objects become landmarks denoted by a capital letter: Door, Roof, Mirror, TV, Bed, Bed Wall and the like.
At first the presence of a television seemed to render the isolation less absolute, but for a boy incarcerated since birth our everyday world becomes a fantasy universe. “Mountains are too big to be real,” Jack ponders, though he concedes that some things on TV are real: “Bunnies are TV but carrots are real.”
Jack’s mother is determined to stimulate and educate her son. She invents games, uses leftover packaging to make toys and trawls through TV programs for vocabulary building. At times I felt charmed by her creativity and determination; and almost forgot how sinister the situation really was. But not quite.
There are ominous references to “Old Nick”, their captor. He is twice the woman’s age. He makes her uncomfortable. He appears at night, like a bat. At first his main role in the story is to deliver groceries. Jack’s mum asks him, politely, for little extras, at the bottom of the grocery list: “Grapes if poss.” But soon Old Nick comes to ‘creak Bed’, with Jack hiding in Wardrobe. It makes for very uncomfortable reading.
Donoghue has made a brave decision in telling her story through the eyes of a five-year-old narrator whose experience of the world is limited to a single room. She takes pains to sprinkle his language with little errors and idiosyncrasies. For example, Jack talks about ‘the tall’ (the height) and ‘the wide’ (the width). In spite of this, Jack often sounds too perceptive and eloquent for his age.
For Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own was a hallmark of emancipation, the physical embodiment of independence. In Donoghue’s terrifying novel, the room provides a perverse counterpoint, its enslavement right on the other side of the scale. Donoghue briefly references Virginia Woolf towards the end of her novel: “I read a book at college that said everyone should have a room of their own (…) to do their thinking in.”
For Jack, however, the Room is his comfort zone, a microcosm of familiar objects and routines. Even so, there are poignant moments, such as when he runs towards the television to join in on a group hug on screen — but he arrives too late.
And yes, I did finish reading the novel. While sexual exploitation provides the harrowing backdrop, it is by no means the sole focus of the novel. The book also raises questions about perception and cognition, about rituals and habituation, belonging and parenting. Jack is a character who will stay with you, as is his mother, that tenacious and resilient woman, whose name we never learn.
I am reluctant to recommend this book because of its dark themes. It is a gripping novel, though, and not without its own brand of optimism. Some readers may struggle with the point of view residing with a child narrator, but I think Emma Donoghue has pulled off quite a feat.