Review of “Room” by Emma Donoghue

“Ma” and her five-year-old son Jack live in an eleven-by-eleven foot locked room where Ma has been held imprisoned for the last seven years, since she was nineteen. Jack is unaware there is anything “real” on the Outside; he thinks it is all make-believe, like tv. Their story is narrated by Jack, who, while precocious, is still a child of five, and doesn’t understand a lot about their situation. He names everything in Room by its function. At night, Jack hides in Wardrobe while Ma waits for visits by the man Jack calls “Old Nick.” Jack counts the creaks in Bed, and when Old Nick leaves, he comes out and gets under Duvet with Ma.

Ma and Jack are bound to be close, given their constant interaction in the small room, but the interdependency has become pathological in ways. For example, Jack is still breast-feeding at age five. One imagines that Ma wants to make sure he gets sufficient nutrients, since they are dependent on what Old Nick brings them, which is not a lot. But it is clear that Jack is too old for this activity which he initiates by either lifting Ma’s t-shirt or announcing “I want some.” He seems to have an implicit understanding that breast-feeding represents more than just nourishment (oh no! he thinks while in Wardrobe, “Old Nick better not be having some!”) and he already has a problematic penis, which rises each morning with the sun. The Freudian repercussions down the road seem frightening, but Ma is as little interested in stopping this practice as Jack.

Likewise, Ma is fully complicit in the desire to bathe and sleep with Jack. Jack is too dependent on Ma, but he’s five. Ma is too dependent on Jack, and it seems quite unhealthy. But there isn’t much about their situation that is healthy. And Jack is Ma’s only reason to keep living.

When Old Nick loses his job, Ma becomes afraid Old Nick will have his house repossessed and therefore need to kill both her and Jack. She comes up with an escape plan that depends on Jack for its success. But he’s just a little kid, and easily distracted. The chances of his messing up are huge. Ma’s insistence on his central role makes him scared and angry. He doesn’t have a clue about how desperate their situation really is. The tension is palpable as the plan takes shape; everything is riding on its success.

Discussion: Emma Donoghue was inspired to write this story by newspaper reports about the actual case of Josef Fritzl, in Austria. Fritzl locked his daughter Elisabeth in a concealed cellar/prison measuring 600 square feet and only 5’6” high. He kept her there for 24 years and raped her repeatedly. She had seven children by him, three of whom stayed imprisoned with her and never saw the light of day. A keyless entry code provided the only access to the secret room, so no one could come or go but Josef. If Josef felt “punishment” was warranted, he would shut off the lights to the room or not deliver food for several days. When the group finally escaped (by the use of a plan similar to that used by Ma in Room), Felix Fritzl, aged five, saw the world for the first time. Donoghue says she was seized by “that notion of the wide-eyed child emerging into the world like a Martian coming to Earth.”

In most ways, I think the author does an excellent job of creating a story that comes entirely out of the head of a five year old boy. Some of Jack’s observations exhibit creative writing at its finest. But some aspects of the story are disconcerting.

Jack has an excellent vocabulary and uses adult words. His grammar is markedly deficient, however, especially given the care that Ma shows in nurturing his intellectual development. (Emotionally, however, Jack’s character seems just right; he is at turns loving, funny, self-centered, babyish, helpful, impatient, immature, generous, and eager to please. Ma has the patience of a saint, although every once in a while she “shuts down” for the day and doesn’t get out of bed. Who could blame her?)

The escape plan struck me as very flawed. Old Nick was not exactly trustworthy, and there is no reason for Ma to have expected that he would do what she asked him to do and not do what was easiest for him. She, after all, would never have known the difference. Plus, she knew how nervous Jack was about helping, and how confused he got when he got scared. That it didn’t turn out worse is miraculous.

Brie Larson as "Ma" in the movie version of Room

Brie Larson as “Ma” in the movie version of Room

Evaluation: This book tells a nightmarish story, and yet, since it comes entirely from five-year-old Jack’s perspective, it is much less disturbing than it could have been. Jack is usually more concerned about seeing Dora the Explorer on television than worrying about survival. And the abuse of his mother by Old Nick is something he describes in a confused way without understanding what he is saying. On the other hand, this just makes it all the creepier and suspenseful for the reader. I had a few nightmares from this one, but I’m glad I read it all the same!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2010


Man Booker Prize Nominee (2010)
Orange Prize Nominee for Fiction Shortlist (2011)
ALA Alex Award (2011)
Indies Choice Book Award for Fiction (2011)
Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award for Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year (2010)
Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award for Fiction Book (2011)
Abraham Lincoln Award Nominee (2014)
Galaxy National Book Award for WHSmith Paperback of the Year (2011)
UC Book of the Year (2014)
Eason Novel of the Year (2010)
Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (2010)

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27 Responses to Review of “Room” by Emma Donoghue

  1. Julie P. says:

    You make some valid points. I was able to accept most of the things when I read the book because I kept telling myself the situation was so odd that I had no idea how everyone would act.

  2. Sandy says:

    I was in awe of the author’s ability to actually imagine all the implications of such an imprisonment for a five year old. That is a seriously creative imagination. I loved this book. There were a number of disturbing situations, but I have it on my top five books of the year.

  3. I really appreciate this review! I’ve seen nothing but gushing reviews about this book and I’m glad for your balanced approach. I plan to read this one at some point.

  4. zibilee says:

    I loved this book a lot and was just totally amazed by Ma’s patience with him. I know I probably would have been climbing up the wall, but not Ma! I liked your honest take on this story, and do agree that the narration by Jack had a lot to do with how terrifying it was to me. Great review on this book. It was very much appreciated!

  5. Wendy says:

    Great review. I actually only have a quibble with one of your observations…that the story was less disturbing because it was told from a five year old’s perspective…for me this actually made it MORE disturbing…perhaps because as an adult I understood far more what was happening and Jack’s innocence of the reality of his situation scared me to death … I kept expecting something cataclysmic to happen!! (I also was terrified during the escape!!). Glad you liked this one!!

  6. Did your husband listen to this on audio? I am curious how the audio version would be. I really was impressed by this story line and book and found the angle in which it was written unique.

  7. Hm, people keep telling me to read this but I just don’t know if I can stomache it, right now. Glad to see it’s getting such great reviews, though!

  8. Ti says:

    I didn’t know this book was inspired by a true story. How horrible.

  9. Rural View says:

    The thought of this story pretty much gives me the creeps so I hadn’t even considered reading it. If I could read it unemotionally, maybe . . .

  10. Initially, I couldn’t make up my mind whether this book was amazing or just too much. In the end I was fascinated by Donoghue’s ability to tell this difficult story (and Ma’s) without once wavering from Jack’s mindset. It was tedious for me, especially in the beginning, but I am also really glad I read it. Great review!

  11. Nymeth says:

    I know this has gotten some rave reviews, but what makes me want to read it the most is knowing she got the perspective right.

  12. Jenners says:

    Love your take on this. I thought she did a great job considering all the challenges she faced in telling this story. And I agree that having it told from Jack’s point of view kept it from being a total nightmare. Just reading your summary of the Fritzl case started making me sick to my stomach. That Donaghue could read about that story and then turn it into something like this shows me what a talent she is.

    And your husband’s reaction is quite amusing!

  13. bermudaonion says:

    I thought this book was amazing and you’re right – it wasn’t as scary as it could have been since it was told from Jack’s perspective. It was the only world he knew so he thought it was acceptable.

  14. JoV says:

    Wow Jill, since you like it, this book must be something and nightmares too! I am beginning to feel jittery about this one now….. but I think I should pick this up and read it and see what the fuss is all about! 🙂

  15. Jenny says:

    It’s so interesting how people have different reactions. I was impressed at how well Ma had managed with Jack (though the breast-feeding was a bit weird). I can’t imagine I would be as creative and resourceful as Ma is about raising Jack.

  16. Jen says:

    This is the first review of Room that has me interested in picking the book up. You seemed to capture something that other reviews (and all the publicity) hasn’t been able to: that this book is about a relationship between people. All I’ve heard about Room previous to this has been talking about the “child narrator.” Thanks for a new insight!

  17. softdrink says:

    I think I’m more disturbed by Jim’s reaction to Jack, than I was by the book! I can’t even imagine having to deal with Jack, especially after they found freedom. He was (quite understandably) very clingy.

  18. Staci says:

    I have been a bit on the fence with this one…your review knocked me off into the I MUST READ side of the field!! 😀
    What an excellent review!

  19. Amanda says:

    I have heard so much about this and the reviews have been very mixed, so I’m waiting just a little bit before i try to read it. Perhaps next summer or so?

  20. Bailey says:

    I just posted a review of this one today. I really appreciate your balanced review, and I agree with your comments on the escape. It could have been so horrific!

  21. Pingback: Best Books I Read This Year – 2010 « Rhapsody in Books Weblog

  22. stacybuckeye says:

    I’m glad that you mentioned your hubby liked it. I’m always looking for good audios Jason and I would both like and I never would have thought of this one.

  23. Cipriano says:

    I am a big fan of Emma Donoghue and have read pretty much all of her books except this one. As soon as I leafed through it in the store and saw it was narrated by a five-year old I sort of lost interest. But now your review has made me reconsider.

  24. Matthew says:

    I got the book on the day it came out because I’ve been following her books. But I wasn’t thrilled after the first pages and shoved it aside. I know I’ll come back to it—very soon—especially now that it’s shortlisted for the Indie Literary Award. I’m still having hope in this one, and want to engage in the head of a 5-year-old.

  25. Literary Feline says:

    I thought Room was very well written. It definitely is a very disturbing story–more so because we know things like that actually happen.

  26. Pingback: Just another review on “Room” by Emma Donoghue « Bibliojunkie

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