Friday, March 19, 2021

"Room" by Emma Donoghue--Fiction Review

For today’s review, I thought we’d go with a book that’s a children’s story—if you’re a terrible parent—seriously, while “Room” by Emma Donoghue is an excellent novel with a five-year-old protagonist, don’t give it to your kids to read. 

Emma Donoghue

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

Donoghue’s skill with establishing and maintaining a consistent character voice is unparalleled. Writing this entire novel from the perspective of and narrated by a five-year-old boy and make it feel authentic while telling a story that isn’t just good but gripping—is nothing short of amazing. I’ve never seen anyone do character voice better, and honestly, you should read this novel for just that reason. Sure, there are seams in the illusion in any creation, but her characters are so good any defect in believability is barely noticeable.   

This book is an emotional tour de force from start to finish, and I love that it never lets up. I mean that it doesn’t end where you would naturally assume it would, and a lesser book would have. I’m tiptoeing around here because I don’t want to spoil too much yet. Suffice to say, for a book about a kidnapped young woman being held against her will while raising her son, the narrative addresses the obvious emotional struggles and some not so obvious.

The sense of tension in this novel is masterful. It waxes and wanes, ebbs and flows, but it’s always present in every scene. Since this story is a character study of this little boy and his mother obviously going through an incredibly tragic circumstance that is also quite unique—as life experiences go—those two characters are the center of focus, the whole world of the story. For me, this endeared them to me quickly and made me want the best for them, which made me incredibly uncomfortable—in an excellent narrative way—when their happiness and even their very lives were being threatened.

Specific to the audiobook version of this story, the version I have has a full voice cast, which is something I’ve brought up before that I love. 

What I don’t love about this book:

In the second half of the book, there are many characters where I feel like their emotional intelligence—or hell, even their imagination—seems to be awfully stunted. There were a couple times where I was like, you’re medical professionals, how can you be this bad at getting what these people have gone through?

All of the side characters beyond the primary pair range from O.K. to above average, which is good—but for a book with a protagonist whose characterization sparkles—it’s a bit odd that the secondary cast of characters just does their job. This is a tempered complaint, though, because I didn’t feel there was a weak link amongst them. I certainly didn’t like grandpa, but you’re not supposed to like grandpa because he’s terrible. I did like step-grandpa or steppa, as Jack calls him. He genuinely seems to be doing his best, which isn’t true for everyone.

I’m no fan of the rape in this story, which, you know, is essential to the narrative—but still, it makes you feel icky. That is the point, though. So I wouldn’t have suggested removing or even changing that aspect of the story.   

This preview is an Amazon Affiliate link; 
as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

“Room,” starts with Jack talking about his and his Ma’s day in room. He describes their lives together, and it’s clear pretty early on that something is odd about this situation. It’s pretty amazing that the fact that Jack, who has just turned five at the beginning of the story, is so upbeat because it’s apparent that he’s spent his entire life from birth to his fifth birthday in this one room.

You have to piece together, terribly, that Jack’s Ma is a kidnap victim and has been imprisoned in this shed for years and clearly, is routinely raped by her kidnapper at night—a man Jack and his Ma call Old Nick. Jack is such an enthusiastic kid—and shielded by his mother—that it doesn’t seem like he realizes there is much if anything wrong with their lives, other than being a bit lonely. The stress is there, though, and cracks are visible from an adult audience’s eye looking through his, that their situation is becoming untenable.

One day, to punish Jack’s mother, Old Nick turns off the power in their sealed shed, and it gets frigid in the room. Jack’s mother, however, uses this to their advantage, to pretend the next day that Jack has gotten very sick and needs to be taken to the hospital. She even gives him a note to give the doctor to explain their situation to hopefully get help. It doesn’t work, though, and Old Nick insists that he’ll just go get medicine for him, himself. So the next day, Jack’s mother has him pretend like he died in the night. She wraps him up in their carpet, with instructions that when Old Nick takes him out of the room and puts him in his pickup truck, Jack is to jump out. Then he’s to find the nearest person and get help.

It goes nearly to plan, but in any case, Jack does find someone but is almost caught by Old Nick until the stranger starts calling the police. Jack is safe, but Old Nick drives off, and Ma is still in the room. There is a very tense search with the police to find her. The trouble is caused by a language barrier between the police and Jack, who is clearly an overwhelmed five-year-old since he has never been outside before. They do find the shed, though, and Jack is reunited with his mother. You would think that this is the natural end of the story. The two main characters have been rescued from the kidnapper—and that would be true of a lesser story, but this is only the middle.  

Old Nick is quickly captured and arrested. He was never some criminal mastermind, just a lonely creep with carpentry skills, so the rest of the story isn’t a cat-and-mouse thriller with him. The second half of the story is the emotional fallout in the near to midterm, right after Jack and his mother survive such a heinous crime. First, they’re in a fancy hospital to recuperate, then there is dealing with reuniting with family, and then lawyers and “fans.”

It’s a while before they get to “go home” to Jack’s Mother’s childhood home, which isn’t really much like home anymore to her. She’s lost so much of her life. Her friends and family have moved on, and adjusting for her and Jack is hard. Ma suffers from depression and even has to go back to the hospital for a while without Jack, which he certainly doesn’t understand. He has to grow—for the very first time—on his own while living with his grandmother and steppa. His mother eventually recovers enough to come home, and the story ends with them moving on when she gets them their own apartment. Things still aren’t O.K. precisely, but they’ve survived and will survive.


There is a sense of intimacy with these characters, brought on by how well established each character’s voice is and how well it’s maintained. Donoghue’s characters are so finely crafted, and the story is so unfortunately eerily familiar to real life that often it feels like an eyewitness account from actual kidnap victims. 

From a plot perspective, I think there are really two masterstrokes that bare mentioning. First, not ending the narrative when Jack and Ma escape room is genius. It’s genius because it sets up her ability to tell their emotional journey after rescue and how it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. When a story like this hits the news, we get the victim’s past, what the confinement was like, the dramatic escape/rescue but less common to be addressed is what comes next. Survivors of crime, especially sexual crimes, find that their whole world is altered forever, and long-term kidnap victims are often stunned at how the world has moved on without them. These story elements are far less feel-good than the escape portion of the story, but I feel are equally powerful.

The second part of the plot I think is inspired is that the story just sort of ends. Certainly, it sets up that Jack and his mother have “moved on” in a way, but nothing is truly resolved, which is what life is like. Rarely are episodes within anyone’s life wrapped up in neat succinct sections. So the ending felt authentic to me.   

Parting thoughts:

This is one of those novels that has been turned into a movie, a critically acclaimed one at that, and it’s one of those rare books I feel belies itself well to being translated into a film. First of all, it’s short. Second, its story’s high concept is quick and easy to understand. Young boy, the son of a long-term kidnap victim, has to escape the room he’s lived in his entire life and finds adjusting to the outside world difficult.

Plus—at the risk of straying too far outside of my domain as a book reviewer—I felt that the acting in the movie version of “Room” was superb. The actors did justice to Donoghue’s finely crafted characters. I’m getting at that you should definitely read the book and then watch the movie, which is also excellent.

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