Like The Book Thief, which I read last September, I thought there was no way Room could live up to the hype. But it did. This is a book nearly everyone on the planet has read and raved about. It’s a book I put down days ago and I haven’t gotten out of my head. I’ve already recommended it to family and friends.
If you’re on this planet and haven’t read Room yet, I’ll keep the details to a minimum. The book is told through the eyes of Jack, who has just turned five. Jack lives in a room with his Ma that measures 11 feet by 11 feet. He believes there is nothing outside of Room. He’s the only boy, Ma is the only mother, and everything he sees on TV is in some made up TV world, not real. His world consists of Room, Ma, Table, Wardrobe, Bath, etc. You get the picture. There’s also Old Nick, who brings food and a treat on Sundays. Old Nick visits at night but Jack has to hide in Wardrobe while he’s visiting.
At the beginning of the book, Jack describes every detail of his day in Room. Each hour, each day of the week is carefully choreographed by Ma. They do crafts, Physical Education, spelling, math, and a surprising number of other activities. Jack is a fairly happy five-year-old; he’s advanced for his age, and his primary misery seems to be green beans. He knows enough to want more than he has, like a dog and a lollipop, but he loves Ma and their life together.
I move my chair to Sink to wash up, with bowls I have to do gently but spoons I can cling clang clong. I stick out my tongue in Mirror. Ma’s behind me, I can see my face stuck over hers like a mask we made when Halloween happened. “I wish the drawing was better,” she says, “but at least it shows what you’re like.”
“What am I like?”
“She taps Mirror where’s my forehead, her finger leaves a circle. “The dead spit of me.”
You would think reading a book narrated by a five year old — whose world consists of TV, crafts and green beans — would get old pretty quick. But just when you reach a point where you’ve had enough of Dora the Explorer, Donohue changes the story on you in subtle and surprising ways, and you’re drawn right back in again.
One of those moments comes when Jack describes playing “Scream” – this is a game they play at midday, Mondays through Thursdays, where they yell and scream at the Skylight until they are hoarse. And then Ma takes a moment to listen – but she never hears anything in response. Something about that detail made this book absolutely chilling. Viewed through Jack’s eyes, you see Ma, a young woman who is dealing every day with an unbearable situation. We never forget, for long, that this world that is so comfortable for Jack, is absolutely terrifying for Ma.
That’s as much as I’ll say about the story. I will say that this book was so much more than I expected. As you read you can actually see this child developing more each day. I’m not a parent but I know that age of four to five is one where children soak up everything around them, and think and change all the time. I think that’s an incredible feat for an author to achieve. I also loved that there was a lot of magic in Jack’s descriptions of things, just as I would imagine a five year old to think. For example:
I flat the chairs and put them beside Door against Clothes Horse. He always grumbles and says there’s no room but there’s plenty if he stands up really straight. I can fold up flat too but not quite as flat because of my muscles, from being alive. Door’s made of shiny magic metal, he goes beep beep beep after nine when I’m meant to be switched off in Wardrobe.
So while critics rave about this book as a “compelling portrait of a mother’s love for her son”, which it is, I was much more interested in the psychological development and challenges that face these two characters.
Like I said, I’m still thinking about this book. I highly recommend it.