“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.
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!
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)