This review contains spoilers.
Room by Emma Donoghue is a book about one woman’s nightmare come to life. The fictional story is told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack. He and his mother live as captives in a converted garden shack Jack calls Room.
The story is split into five parts: Presents, Unlying, Dying, After and Living.
The story begins in Presents with Jack’s fifth birthday. As he tells us about Room, we begin to get an idea of his world and what goes on within it. He and his mother are trapped and at the mercy of an abusive man they call Old Nick or just “him.”
In Unlying, Ma begins to explain to Jack that there is another world outside of their room. He has always believed what he has seen on TV was just pictures that only existed on the screen. Now his mother tells him stories about her life as a child, how she came to live in Room, and about her failed attempts to escape.
The part of their tale told in Dying is about their new plan of escape. Ma knows they cannot stay in Room much longer as tensions with Old Nick rise. She begins to try convincing Jack to go along with her new plan to leave the only world he knows. We discover the plan, see Jack’s battle with the decision and follow the plan’s execution and success.
During After, we follow Jack and his mother as they work to integrate themselves into the real world. For Ma, it has been seven years of captivity and everyone believed her to be dead. Jack struggles to grasp the true size of the world. All he has ever known has been Room, an eleven-by-eleven square garden shack. Now he is faced with the reality of everything he has seen for five years on a TV screen.
Since Room is told from five-year-old Jack’s perspective and in a child’s language, the reader must focus on trying to decipher the world through a little boy’s eyes. I found that imagining oneself in Room as a child made it easier to follow Jack’s narrative. By using the child’s point of view, the author gives a clear picture of the book’s two main characters. Donoghue shows the contrast of a child who is smart, curious and happy in the only world he knows with a mother who loves her child and recognizes his contentment but desperately wants to be free from her captor. The passage of time in the story is consistent with a child’s idea of time so actual time passage sometimes appears unclear. What might be just half an hour could be many hours to Jack. To alleviate this disconnect, Donoghue occasionally has Jack ask his mother how much time has passed or has Ma independently mention exactly how much time has elapsed.
I found the first three parts of Room to be disturbing and the last two parts hopeful. Overall, it was a thought-provoking book. While there are stories about women living in captivity and even stories about those women having a child during their captivity, few stories show the ordeal through the child’s eyes. By using this approach, Donoghue has given the reader a very raw perspective to an already tragic story.