Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

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.

  15 comments for “Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

  1. January 16, 2012 at 10:05 am

    Read this last Christmas, and could Not put it down! Fascinating and extremely well written.

  2. January 16, 2012 at 10:14 am

    I read this book last year and was blown away. A really good book that stays with you for a long long time.

  3. January 16, 2012 at 11:16 am

    I read this book a few weeks ago, and yes, it did live up to the hype. Great book and I love your review.

  4. January 16, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    This one laid me out flat. So so so affecting and interesting on a psychological level. For me as a relatively new mom it was also painful to read, almost unbearable in spots, but I thought Donoghue did a wonderful job not making it sensational.

    Wonderful review!

    • January 16, 2012 at 5:16 pm

      Thanks for the positive feedback! It was hard to review when I didn’t want to reveal much. I imagine it’s a very different read for someone who’s a parent.

  5. January 16, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    I haven’t read either The Book Thief or Room, in part because of the hype. Great to know that they work anyway.

  6. January 16, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    The thing that surprised me with this book was how well the second half is done. This could have easily ended with “and they lived happily ever after” but the fact that Donoghue examines would would in other cases be a happy ending made it worth the hype.

    • January 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm

      I completely agree. I was really surprised at how Donoghue covered how complex everyone’s emotions were (through the eyes of a five year old no less)– it really gave me a glimpse into what a situation like this might be like for someone. The mother was such a sympathetic character.

  7. January 16, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    Like you, I wasn’t expecting this to live up to the hype…but I think I read it in about a day once I gave in. I still can’t quite believe how well Donoghue handled the narration, especially how she gave us those occasional glimpses of what Jack’s mother must have been feeling, though Jack himself never sees his world as a frightening one.

  8. January 16, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    i have not read this book although i do have friends who have and have told me they could not put it down. thank you for your thoughtful review and not giving too much away. it is now on my list. hopefully before tbr 2013.

  9. January 16, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    I am half way through this and really enjoying it too. It’s quite compelling and a quick read as well. I am finding it somewhat frustrating. I keep thinking tomyself that someone needs to be trying harder to get Jack to readjust to the world, but then remembering that since th ebook is from Jack’s perspective and he is so young that we are getting a very skewed perspective about what is actually going on.

  10. January 17, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Isn’t this book fantastic? So glad you enjoyed 🙂

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