When I was four I thought everything in TV was just TV, then I was five and Ma unlied about lots of it being pictures of real and Outside being totally real. Now I’m in Outside but it turns out lots of it isn’t real at all.
Jack lives in Room with his Ma. He has only ever lived in Room, he was born there and his every day and night has been spent there. He watches TV, not too much because it rots your brain, but he knows that TV isn’t real. Only Room is real and beyond that is just Outerspace.
Until one day Ma tells him some of the things in TV are real. In fact, trees, buildings and aeroplanes are real too. The ocean is real. Room is in fact a cell, built into a garden shed, in the backyard of Ma’s abducter – Old Nick.
Narrated by Jack, Donoghue writes with the tone and cadence of a phenomenally literate, but completely isolated, five year old boy. As consistent and dedicated to her style as she is, it grated my nerves for some time. But as I became accustomed to the rhythm of Jack’s thoughts, I found the novel deeply unsettling. Jack has no idea how painstaking his Ma’s efforts to keep him alive are; regular “Phys Ed”, careful meal planning and hygeine, daily “screams” to the skylight in the roof are all part of the routine. Ma wakes up during the night and turns the lamp on and off in irregular patterns, to help her sleep Jack says. She has meticulously created Room as its own world, isolated with the exception of Old Nick who brings food, and on Sundays treats, from Outside.
Having escaped from Room, Jack and Ma find themselves in an alien world populated with people. Jack has trouble with pronouns – refering to someonee else has never been necessary before. He refuses to be touched, he has never worn shoes or walked down stairs. He’s never seen, or touched, grass, or a tree. He’s never been in sunlight.
Somehow, and with remarkable subtlety, Donoghue turns the novel’s gaze onto society, its excesses and inconsistencies, and where we find our families. Jack is surprised to notice most parents don’t seem to like their children. He’s confused by shops, the idea that his Derek the Digger book could have multiple copies for sale on book shop shelves. He is suddenly thrust into the world as an intelligent five year old and can’t fathom why houses have more than one room, most of which aren’t used. Why there is a playground in every neighbourhood?
As a chapter in nature versus nurture it’s fascinating. As a metaphor on parenthood or a side bar to the guilt the world forces parents to feel, no matter how meticulously they raise their children, it’s intruiging. As a story it’s perfectly wrought and genuinely moving. Probably most importantly, it makes you stand outside the world for a while and view it anew. And isn’t that what fiction is about?
Room by Emma Donoghue: three and a half stars.
Read it to: get a new perspective, be surprised by humanity, get outside yourself.