Review: ROOM by Emma Donoghue

24 Nov

One of the parts of living at home is that my parents get full access to all of my books. I cannot fit all my books in my room, so there are bookcases all over the house, overflowing with my books. They have their own bookscases, but over time, mine have gradually taken over. Not that they’re complaining, nor am I. Every couple of weeks, when one of them has finished whatever book they’re reading, they’ll start glancing at titles and mention to me that they’re looking for something new. I love being able to pick out a title for each of them that they’ll love, depending on their moods.

When I came home from BEA ’10 with 70+ books (some of which my mom schleped home with her), it was just as much fun for them as it was for me. They’ve both read books that I haven’t had a chance to get to yet – like my dad just finished my authographed copy of Innocent by Scott Turow, the follow-up to Presumed Innocent. I also had a chance to share some of the initial buzz with them and the books that I couldn’t wait to jump into. One of these was Room by Emma Donoghue. It was featured on the Buzz panel and it seemed to be THE book that everyone was talking about. Everyone wanted to get their hands on a copy, and I rearranged my schedule the day she was signing copies to get mine.

Sadly, I didn’t get around to reading mine until a few weeks ago, but before I did, my mom took a crack at it. She and I tend to have pretty similar tastes in books, but her recent interests have trended toward the fast, easy reads. She picked up ROOM at the end of the summer after I’d told her about all the rave reviews, got about 50 pages in, and threw in the towel. She couldn’t get into the narrative voice of Jack, a five-year-old who has spent his whole life in Room, with Ma, and knows nothing of the outside world. The voice is the most distinctive part of the book, to be sure, and from a critical standpoint, one that is surprising and clever and mostly flawless. But after hearing her lukewarm review, I was hesitant to try it for myself. But I did, and I’m so glad I did too.

Room is unlike any book I’ve read before. The narrator is unique; although there have been comparisons to other child narrators, I personally thought Jack’s voice was unlike any of the others I’d read before. He’s sensitive and naive and smart and I felt the strong urge to protect him almost from the first page. There’s been a lot written about the plot of the book, but only the plot until a certain point. A quick synopsis from Goodreads:

To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough…not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, ROOM is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

 Because the plot does have a distinctive split mid-way through, it’s difficult to review the book’s storyline without giving too much away. But I will say that, reading the blurbs or the plot synopsis above, you might get the sense that Room is sort of a “ripped from the headlines” kind of story, but Donoghue manages to make what seems both terrifying, in an abstract and foreign way, immediate and real. Ma’s desperation and nerves are clear, and viewed through Jack’s eyes, her crumbling mental health seems all the more painful.

I had few problems with this book. There have been criticisms elsewhere that certain aspects of Jack’s language and development seem too outlandish to be real and that they didn’t believe that a five-year-old would have such advanced language and spelling skills, while being clearly developmentally lacking in other ways. However, my response to that criticism is that Jack has grown up in the kind of environment and with the kind of limitations that none of us can begin to fathom, so we have no idea how his development might occur and how it might be different from other kids his age. There’s absolutely zero socialization with other children — to the most extreme level that he doesn’t even believe that other children are REAL — and he is limited not only in what books and toys he has access to, but what knowledge Ma has to teach him. To presume to predict what kind of an environment that is or what it does to a child and then to presume that the author has done it wrong, is nothing short of reader arrogance. Donoghue created what I believe is a nuanced and consistent voice from an emotionally- and developmentally-stunted child, which as a reader is all I’m asking for.

Which brings up an interesting point that is reflective of some larger issues in this book: at what point do you suspend disbelief and trust the author with what they’re writing? At what point is the story too far-fetched to be believable? For some people that line is fairly straight forward and they don’t easily give in to a story. I however am the opposite kind of reader. I go in expecting to trust the author explicitely, and it takes a major narrative leap for me to disconnect. And if that’s happened, I most likely will not finish the book. I’m willing to let myself be led down the path of imagination and am happy to go for the ride. And there was nothing in this book that made me stop and question the plausibility of the story or of the characters or of the ending. I’m also not entirely sure how some readers are questioning it, but to me, the plot and narrative voice was exquisite.

This review is much longer than I intended it to be, because at the heart of it, I loved this book. It lived up to and surpassed single expectation I had and more. It’s not a book I will easily forget, nor do I want to. The buzz was entirely deserving, and after I read it and gushed to anyone that would listen, I may have even convinced my mom to take another shot.

Simply stated, this is by far one of the best books of 2010. And as it was also short-listed for the Man Booker Prize for 2010, I’m certainly not the only one that thinks so.

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8 Responses to “Review: ROOM by Emma Donoghue”

  1. Greg Zimmerman November 24, 2010 at 1:15 pm #

    One of the best books of 2010, indeed! Great point about trusting the author – I can’t remember another novel I’ve read where I trusted the author MORE than I trusted Donoghue. Even so, I didn’t think that suspending disbelief was a requirement at all for enjoying this – I also don’t understand the criticism of Jack’s voice and/or that the situation itself is “impossible.” Tell your mom to give it another shot – to give up after 50 pages is nutiness! 😉

  2. Amy November 24, 2010 at 1:20 pm #

    I agree 100%. I felt that unless you grew up the way Jack did, you have no frame of reference for his development. I felt the same way with criticism of the little boy (can’t remember his name) in Little Bee. People complained that he was too precocious, but I’ve known kids like that, so I found it realistic. Every kid is different, every kid responds to his/her own set of circumstances.

    Besides that, Donoghue really made me believe his story, and his mother’s, and in turn her parents’.

    I wish there was a “safe” online place where those of us who have read the book could go to discuss it! I don’t want to give spoilers either, but I’d love to talk about the book more deeply.

  3. Lori (TNBBC) November 24, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    Hi Rachel! I loved loved LOVED this book when I read it. The voice, the subject matter, it was all so very well done. I watched quite a few online interviews with the author after reading the book because I wanted to know more about the evolution of the book.
    Great review (and I enjoyed your lead-in!)

  4. C_Girl November 24, 2010 at 4:28 pm #

    Yay Room. I have never really enjoyed Donoghue’s other work, and was surprised at how much I liked this one. One thing struck me as false throughout the novel though: It was supposed to take place in the US, but there were British/Irish-isms sprinkled throughout (the one that comes to mind is referring to someone’s spouse as a “partner”–I like the term, but it’s just not common here.) It also just FELT British Isles-y somehow. Which makes sense, because the author is Irish. But then why set the book in the US (even if it was meant to be Canada, where she lives now, same quibbles apply.)

    But, still, lovely book. Jack is a great character.

    • ROOM Fan December 16, 2010 at 10:51 pm #

      I loved ROOM. Like C_girl My only quibble with it is the dialect of characters who are supposedly American. They sounded too British or Irish for me. This got annoying. in the U.S. we call “climbers” monkey bars or jungle gyms. We call bicycle “stabilizers” training wheels. There were several instances like these–vocabulary choices that sounded foreign to my U.S. ears. I wondered why the author didn’t just set the book in Britain to match her vocabulary choices. Or, barring that, why her editors didn’t clean up the “bits” that didn’t fit the way people talk in the U.S. This is a small matter but seemed sloppy enough to detract from what was otherwise a wonderful book in my view.

  5. Biblibio November 26, 2010 at 8:22 am #

    I think the reviews I’ve encountered of “Room” fall into the same two categories you describe in this post: the reader that can’t get into the story because of the child’s voice, and the reader that loves it (while recognizing a few faults here and there that still don’t seem to bring the book down). I’m curious to know what category I will fall into when I find a copy of “Room” – I’ve wanted to read it for several months and your review (with the “for and against”) just makes me want to read it more.

  6. pburt November 27, 2010 at 11:18 pm #

    Thank you for such a thoughtful review. I really enjoyed this book for many of the same reasons you did. I liked the level of detail the author was able to put into the story without overburdening the writing. Did I trust the author? Yes, she made it entirely believable to me from the schedule Ma set up, to his language skills, etc. The underlying structure or psychology was there for me much like it was there for me in reading The Incredible Sadness of Lemon Cake. In that book, I could see it as a fable and then relate the fable to real life. I could do the same with Room.

    I guess it all comes down to what the author evokes within the reader. If the reader can relate to it on any level, it works, if the reader can’t, it doesn’t.

  7. Nona Mills December 22, 2010 at 2:11 pm #

    I loved ROOM. Like C_girl My only quibble with it is the dialect of characters who are supposedly American. They sounded too British or Irish for me. This got annoying. in the U.S. we call “climbers” monkey bars or jungle gyms. We call bicycle “stabilizers” training wheels. There were several instances like these–vocabulary choices that sounded foreign to my U.S. ears. I wondered why the author didn’t just set the book in Britain to match her vocabulary choices. Or, barring that, why her editors didn’t clean up the “bits” that didn’t fit the way people talk in the U.S. This is a small matter but seemed sloppy enough to detract from what was otherwise a wonderful book in my view.

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