A young girl kidnapped, repeatedly raped by her captor, and imprisoned in a modified garden shed. It’s hard to imagine a more grim start to a book, and certainly the narrative situation that you find yourself placed in hits hard from the very first page. But then, so it should - inspired by the case of Josef and Elizabeth Fritzl, this a story of desperation, of near-insanity and a deep exploration into the effects of abuse combined with a lack of freedom; and this is a book which utterly deserves its Man Booker prize nomination.
With such a hopeless and disturbing subject matter, Room could easily have been a step too far; a subject just that bit too uncomfortable to face for 400 pages. Donoghue, though, approached her seventh novel from an interesting perspective that made it all the more intriguing and, ultimately, haunting: it was narrated by the kidnapped woman’s five year old son, Jack.
And what a narrator he is. Guiding the reader through the entirety of the novel, Jack brings a heart-breaking viewpoint to the desperate situation that the voice of ‘Ma’, the only other human he has ever spoken to, would have struggled to have done to quite the same effect. And this is not because Jack has suffered at the hands of his captor more than Ma, no; this is because through Jack we see what it would be like never to have known freedom, and that is a concept which has a potential to seriously disturb any reader.
He refers to everything in the room in the singular - not because he is linguistically delayed (in fact, quite the opposite), but because he has only ever seen one of any object - and so he speaks of Bed, of Blanket and of Rug. He and Ma do have a TV set, but, to Jack, everything he sees there - from Dora the Explorer to war documentaries - are ‘TV’ only, and belong in his mind to some kind of cruel, parallel, pretend world. He doesn’t think, even for a moment, that anything exists out of Room, equating ‘Outside’ with Outer Space; and he doesn’t believe that anyone else is real or exists apart from him, Ma, and the man he names ‘Old Nick’ - their captor.
Jack doesn’t know what it is to have choices, variation or, indeed, any kind of freedom; and it is that, and his growing realisation that the world contains more than just Room, that turns the book from an intriguing concept to a haunting read.
Narrating from Jack’s point of view also makes dealing with Old Nick, their captor and Jack’s biological father, particularly poignant. Jack, of course, views the situation at first with a childish acceptance, tinged with apprehension; he speaks of being shut away in Wardrobe at night, hearing the Beep Beep of Door and hearing Bed creak, and then: "I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops." Old Nick certainly does disturb Jack - but, it has to be said, no more than the wrong kind of vegetables at dinner does, for example. Because for Jack, of course, this is normality; and what would have made the read unbearable and grotesque from Ma’s point of view makes it, although not quite, almost so from Jack’s too, because of his faithful acceptance that this is normality; this is the only life that he has ever known.
Of course, it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that, as with the Josef Fritzl case, the captives finally escape mid-way through the book; and here we then see through a very confused five-year-old’s eyes as Outside, a world which existed purely in TV, suddenly becomes a bewildering reality.
Donoghue’s novel can perhaps best be described as a claustrophobic read; it leaves you gasping for freedom from Room itself, and then just as overwhelmed by the sudden extreme freedom of Outside - a feeling which Ma herself struggles to come to terms with after seven years of captivity.
In as much as Room is an examination of freedom, it is also an intimate portrayal of mother-child relationships; it is only because she has Jack to care for that Ma has managed to hold on to some semblance of sanity; it is only because she longs for him to have some kind of normal childhood that they have a strict daily routine of exercises, reading, meal-times and bath-times. Jack is the only thing that means anything to Ma in the world; although they never explicitly say I love you, it is imprinted in their every word and every gesture.
More than freedom, these two characters need each other; and so, ultimately, Room goes one level deeper than showing the importance of freedom; it shows the importance of strength and capacity of love in the face of adversity, and of the tests and tortures - such as removal of freedom - that can be survived through strong, loving bonds.
A claustrophobic and seemingly realistic portrayal of what it must be like to experience a true lack of freedom, Room is a powerful and profound novel, narrated exquisitely, and one that, beyond its recent hype and accolades, offers a unique viewpoint which will leave you feeling affected by the story long after the last page.
The observant of those among you will realise that it's actually Monday I'm posting this, and not Sunday - sorry about that, but it's been a hectic week and a hectic weekend and this is the first chance I've had to write a review. Still, I hope you like it! Back to Sunday next week.