I had noticed “Room” by Emma Donoghue in the bookstore several times. It's simple white cover with the child's crayoned writing across the front stands out. It won the Rogers Writers' Trust Award. It was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Canadian author. All good things. Several times I was interested enough to pick it up off the shelf, but then I would open the book and read the inside flap: it is the story of five year old Jack and his Ma, who are being kept prisoner in an eleven-by-eleven-foot room. Jack was born in Room, and his entire life is his Ma and Room, except for the arrival of Old Nick in the night, who Jack does not see because he is tucked away by then. To top it off, the book is told from Jack's point of view. This is too much, I thought to myself several times as I put the book back down, a story of obvious abuse and confinement told by a five year old. I don't think I am up for that.
But then, our library announced that Emma Donoghue would be in town and that she would do a book reading. I love book readings and getting out and being around stimulating conversation, so the next time I saw the book in the bookstore I picked it up and bought it. Am I ever glad that I did - once I started to read it, I could not put it down. Then, having the opportunity to hear Donoghue speak about the book, how it came about, the research that she did, the reactions that she has received, her thoughtful and intelligent answers to the many questions made my experience of the book even better.
As I said, the story is told entirely from Jack's point of view. His small world is all he knows and he is quite happy with it. For him, everything outside of Room is unreal and make believe. They do have TV, but Dora and the news are both equally fantasy for Jack. Ma does her best to create a stimulating world for her son – she reads to him, tells him stories, teaches him math, plays games, gets exercise. As Donoghue pointed out in her talk, she wanted the story to be from Jack's point of view, but not as a traumatized child. In this way, “Room” becomes a microcosm for the mother-child relationship. We also learn about Ma and her circumstances entirely through the lens of Jack, who understands nothing about kidnapping and sexual abuse. The reader, then, has the job of piecing together Ma, what has happened to her, and what she is like.
Donoghue, along with some of the audience members, acknowledge that it is difficult to read a book written in five year old thoughts – she said that she had received a lot of criticism for it. Personally, I did not have a problem with it, but perhaps it is because I live with a five year old! It also made the story what it was because Ma's point of view would have been devastating.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Room.” Despite its dark circumstances, Donoghue succeeded to write an interesting, sometimes funny, sometimes sad book about the mother-child relationship. Talk to any mother of a young child and she will tell you how confining it can feel. As much as parents love their children, they are “locked in a room” with them and need to get out sometimes. In this way, Donoghue presents universal themes. This is certainly not a morbid book, though parts of it are difficult to read.
Donoghue herself admits that this is a book that she probably would not pick up at the bookstore given the promise of such dark themes. I am glad that she came to Kamloops to speak or I likely never would have taken the plunge and bought her book either.