BOOK REPORTS FOR ADULTS: Room by Emma Donoghue
Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
Room by Emma Donoghue
Why You Should Read Room: Because it’s the best job I’ve ever seen a writer do of capturing a five-year-old’s voice and perspective. Because it’s a book about courage in the face of the unknown at a time when we need courage in the face of the unknown. Because it’s better than the movie#. And because I said so.
Book Size: Quick. I read the whole thing in one sitting, and it wasn’t hard to do.
The Book Report, And What I Learned:
The Plot, Mostly Spoiler-Free:
Jack has just turned five, yet he already knows everything there is to know about the world: it is a square — eleven feet long by eleven feet wide — floating in outer space; it’s full of toys and imaginary friends; and he lives there with his mother, the only other human being who exists. Sure, the TV is full of pictures of people eating crazy food and playing crazy games, but stories on TV are just pretend. In the real world, there are no other people — just Jack, his Ma, and Old Nick; the monster who sometimes comes to visit in the dead of night.
Even with the occasional monster attack, though, Jack’s life is mostly a happy one. His mother never runs short of stories and games, he’s never alone, and he lives in a world where the rules are predictable and everything makes sense.
It’s everything a child could want…
Yet precisely because we see the world through Jack’s eyes, it takes us a little while to notice the hints that all is not as it should be in his little world. Jack’s toys are made of trash, the walls of the room are soundproofed and the windows are blocked with unbreakable mesh, his mother sometimes spends days in bed, too miserable to move. And as we listen to Old Nick talk through the door of the cabinet where Jack hides from him, we start to notice that he doesn’t sound so much like a fairy tale monster as like the kind of monster you see on the evening news.
As it turns out, the year Jack turns five is going to be the most important year of his life. He’s teetering right on the edge of figuring out the truth; that Old Nick kidnapped his mother and has kept her locked in his backyard shed for seven years, that Jack was born in that shed, that his mother has spent every minute of his life struggling desperately to escape. And that the world outside Room isn’t outer space at all — it’s a real world, full of more people than Jack can even imagine.
Jack’s mother has kept that secret from him for his whole life, but time is running out. Old Nick is growing more and more erratic. He has lost his job, and she doesn’t know what he will do with them when his money runs out. More importantly, though, Jack is just getting too big for Room. He’s harder to control, harder to deceive, smarter than he used to be. He barely fits into his old hiding places. And the days when Old Nick can look at him as more of a baby than a threat are coming to an end.
Sometime… sometime soon… a confrontation is coming.
Jack’s happy, safe little world is going to break apart; and when it does, he and his mother will either be free, or be dead.
And that’s just half the story.
Jack. A five-year-old growing up at the speed of light, Jack’s strongest traits are his curiosity, stubbornness, and sharp mind (exactly the traits you’d want your child to have if you were trying to keep a deadly secret from him for his own protection). Like most kids his age, Jack wants more than anything to understand how the world works and to feel safe: two goals that are completely incompatible. Named after the ultimate fairy-tale hero, he’s a lot braver than most people give him credit for, but he doesn’t know it yet.
Ma. We meet Jack’s mother after she has been transformed by seven years’ captivity, and it’s hard to tell what she would have been like if she hadn’t been snatched from the parking lot outside her college library. Like her son, she’s smart, stubborn, and full of creative ingenuity, which is the only reason she’s survived this long. For five years, she has thrown every inch of herself into giving Jack a happy childhood under the worst of circumstances.
The Themes and Ideas:
Happily ever after. Not to spoil anything, but about halfway through the book Ma and Jack escape from Room and rejoin their family and friends. It’s the reunion Ma has been dreaming of for seven years, and like anyone who gets what they wanted after dreaming of it for seven years, she winds up finding it scary, weird, and not very much like she pictured it.
Of course, everyone is astonished to see her, thrilled she’s alive, and even (for the most part) delighted with Jack. But life has moved on without her in the seven years she’s been gone. Her parents are divorced and remarried. Her friends have moved away. She can’t relate to normal people anymore: their worries seem pointless and their lives unfathomable compared to the struggle she’s endured. And since her son has never been apart from her, she can’t do any of the things she’s been dreaming of until he’s ready to do them, too, which may be never. The pressure and loneliness of it is almost enough to break her, even though seven years with Old Nick never did.
In many stories like this one, even real life stories, the camera tends to go out of focus right around the point where Room’s second half begins. The princess in the tower is rescued, she goes home, she marries the handsome prince, and everything, we assume, is pretty much okay after that. But one of the themes that Room explores with unflinching resolve is that happily-ever-afters, in the real world, don’t work like that. Trauma changes people, growth changes people, and sometimes that growth means outgrowing the things you love the most.
The misery of uncertainty. There’s this saying among child psychologists that children tend to “prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.” In other words, children long for any place where they understand the rules and know what to expect, even if that place is unhappy or frightening. It’s one reason why so many abused and neglected children demand to be returned home: even a bad parent is less scary to a child than a big, unknown world. And Jack’s life in Room was a miracle of total control and understanding. He knew every piece of furniture, and every story and song. He never had to try a new food, read a new book, or meet a new person. For a five-year-old, that’s paradise, and one of the ways that Donaghue so impressively captures a five-year-old’s voice is by letting Jack bossily explain all of these rules to us with total confidence — confidence he loses completely when he loses Room.
Ma might struggle to readjust to the outside world once she and Jack are freed, but Jack is completely undone. It’s hard enough for normal kids to cope with their first day of kindergarten, let alone their first time out in the sun, their first time having a grandmother, or their first time just being alone in a room. Even after Jack has learned the truth about what Old Nick was — even after he’s been introduced to ice cream, and jungle gyms, and all the other joys of childhood that he was missing out on when he lived in Room — Jack finds himself longing, more than anything else, for the place he knows as home.
It’s an impossible wish, though, and not just because Room is a crime scene and Jack wouldn’t know where to find it if he tried. Just like the rest of us, Jack can’t go backwards; for Room’s “safety” was a trap, and while leaving may be terrifying, it’s also the only way to stay alive.
In that way, Room is just like childhood.
Parenting and freedom. Ma’s lowest point comes when she accidentally admits on a talk show that in some ways, raising Jack was easier in Room than it is in the outside world.
Obviously, she doesn’t really mean that parenting is easier when you’re locked in a shed and living in the shadow of death, but still, you get where she’s coming from. In Room, Ma was able to control every last detail of Jack’s life from the stories he heard to the games he played. Out in the real world, she’s faced with not just well-meaning doctors and parents who have their own ideas about what’s best for Jack, but also her newfound celebrity, which brings with it the advice, scrutiny, and criticism of thousands of strangers.
For the past five years of her life, the one thing Ma has known for sure is that Jack needed to be free, even if that meant that she didn’t make it or that she never saw him again. And that’s an easy thing to believe when you’re being held prisoner by a lunatic, but much more complicated when the person he needs to be free from is you. The more that Jack gets everything Ma wanted for him — freedom, a chance to grow up and make his own choices, family and friends — the more the unique closeness that they shared when they were the only two people in the world fades away, irrevocably.
Room is in many ways a book about freedom: what makes it so valuable, but also what it costs and demands from those who want to be free. It explores how even when people long for something with all of their hearts, the reality of getting it can be complicated, damaging, and strange — yet still worth fighting for.
In order to live, a little boy has to leave his snug, safe little room and explore the big, scary world, just like all of us.
Side Effects of Reading Room May Include:
Claustrophobia, agoraphobia, paranoia, and a compulsion to actually leave your apartment every once in awhile.
Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:
It’s weird to have something that’s mine-not-Ma’s. Everything else is both of ours. I guess my body is mine and the ideas that happen in my head. But my cells are made out of her cells so I’m kind of hers. Also when I tell her what I’m thinking and she tells me what she’s thinking, our each ideas jump into our other’s head, like coloring blue crayon on top of yellow that makes green.
If you liked…
…Emma Donaghue’s perfect way with words, try her earlier collection of stories Kissing the Witch, a book I had to buy in high school because I was taking it out of the library once a week. It’s a series of familiar fairy tales retold so that the story of each character feeds into the next and they all become part of the same narrative. Like Room, it’s extremely good at capturing universal feelings in oddball stories. It was also the first book of same-sex love stories that I ever read, back in the Paleolithic Ages when those were much more difficult to find.
…books about societies collapsing, try Ishmael Beah’s autobiography A Long Way Gone,, which tells the story of his childhood in Sierra Leone both before and after the situation there went directly to hell without passing Go or collecting $200. Trust me: the only thing more terrifying than reading about a society in shambles is reading about how two weeks before it happened, the author’s biggest worry was planning dance routines to “Ice, Ice Baby.”
…learning about the real-world story that inspired the plot of Room, try Jaycee Dugard’s memoir A Stolen Life. Even though its tone is much more positive, it’s ultimately a more challenging read than Room, full of the messiness of real life and the darkness that Jack’s innocent perspective glosses over. Ultimately, though, it’s a unique opportunity to hear a perspective that you would never be able to hear otherwise. Fascinating, but not for the faint of heart.
…stories about the consequences of trauma, try Ernest Hemingway’s short story A Soldier’s Home, which you can find in his collection, In Our Time. It’s the story of a young man returning from war rather than imprisonment, but otherwise, they could be the same story. It’s an incredible depiction of PTSD from a long time before there was even a word for it, and just like in Room, the sparse, carefully chosen language does so much of the work of showing what’s happening that hardly any of the story’s important ideas need to be spoken aloud.
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