Life behind a locked door
Emma Donoghue's new novel is a tour de force
Imagine living within the confines of a 12x12 room, the only natural light coming from a skylight, a television your only link to the outside world. That’s just what Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue does in Room, a book so original and daring it recently landed on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize.
To five-year-old Jack, Room is his entire world, where he was born and where he lives with Ma, where he learns and plays. It is also where, at night, Jack crawls into Wardrobe to sleep, and to hide when Old Nick visits his mother (when the bed squeaks). For Jack, Room is the only home he’s ever known, but for Ma it’s a prison where she’s been held captive for seven years after being abducted at the age of 19.
Told in the pitch-perfect voice of a five-year-old boy raised in captivity, Donoghue’s stunning novel offers a unique portrait of one mother’s fierce devotion.
If this sounds like the stuff of tabloids, luridly sensational or gimmicky, in Donoghue’s talented hands it’s anything but. Told from Jack’s perspective, Room turns the usual victim/survivor story on its head, transforming it into something else entirely—a meditation on the nature of reality and a testament to the ferocity of a mother’s love.
In a conversation from her home in London, Ontario, Donoghue readily admits, in a lilting Irish brogue, that readers might at first balk at the idea of a five-year-old narrator, but believes that they will “relax into it after a few pages.” A native of Dublin, Donoghue received a doctorate in English literature from the University of Cambridge before launching her writing career. In 1998, she moved to Canada, where she and her partner are raising their two young children.
Her son was five while she was writing Room, and she says, “The dialogue came very easily because I know what they’re like—five-year-old boys in particular. I wanted to get Jack at that moment when [children] suddenly move from the very concrete, ‘where’s my next snack coming from,’ to the big questions. At that age they have this astonishing ability to tackle abstract issues and then swing right back to concerns about toys.”
Donoghue perfectly captures that liminal stage. Jack’s voice is wholly believable and pitch-perfect, and in him Donoghue has created a narrator who is endearing without being cloying, one whose phrasing, thoughts and insights are by turns touching and astute.
Coming across as sentimental or cutesy was, Donoghue says, her biggest fear. “Getting the readers to care is a challenge with any novel, but with this novel I knew they would care when they worked out what the situation was, so then my challenge was to rein in the sentiment.”
A writer of literary historical novels (Slammerkin, The Sealed Letter, Life Mask) Donoghue admits that Room marks a dramatic departure for her. “I’ve often been inspired by fact in the past, but it’s never happened to me in the present. I happened to hear about the Fritzl case in Austria, but that just gave me the hook, the notion of a child raised in a room not realizing that there was an outside world. That’s as much as I took from it.” (Interestingly, Donoghue had already completed the novel before the Jaycee Dugard case in California came to light.)
“I read up about a lot of those kinds of cases, but I deliberately kept the story in my book very different from all of them because I really didn’t want the book to be in any way like true crime,” she says. “I was interested in boiling down those situations to the essence of confinement and captivity.”
Donoghue stresses that she never intended for Room to be a realistic depiction of life in captivity. To that effect, she deliberately made Ma and Jack’s living conditions far better than in real-life cases, making their quarters an above-ground building with proper light and ventilation. She also didn’t want Room to “read like a treatise on male violence.”
“I didn’t want it to be about child abuse or about appalling neglect,” Donoghue says. “I wanted it to be just about the locked door. What if everything else is fine, but you’re locked away from the world?”
At times, Room has the feel of a macabre fairy tale—like a modern-day Rumpelstiltskin. “There’s no denying those overtones,” the author says. “I deliberately chose a common name for Jack because I wanted him to be like a hero in a fairy tale.” She’s quick to add, however, that though Room can be read on many levels, she’d rather readers understand it as a “real” story with authentic, true-to-life characters.
Above all, she explains, she was “trying to create a kind of test case for a mother’s love.” Strange as it may sound, Donoghue says that the simplicity of the story—a mother and child spending uninterrupted time together—is what has resonated with readers most. “Oddly enough, people have responded in a kind of nostalgic way. Nobody wants to idealize imprisonment, but many of us have such complicated lives, and we try to fit parenting in alongside work and socializing. . . . We try and have so many lives at once, and we run ourselves ragged.”
“Today parenting is so self-conscious and worried, so I wanted to ask the question, how minimally could you do it? One parent in one room. Would that do?”
Room seems to say yes, at least for a time—and with a young, resourceful mother like Ma. (A note to all mothers: prepare to feel inadequate as you marvel at Ma’s mothering skills and instincts.) “She really civilizes and humanizes Jack; he’s not a feral child,” says Donoghue. “She passes along her cultural knowledge to him, from religion to tooth-brushing to rules.”
Despite limited space and resources, by day, the two engage in “Phys Ed,” cooking lessons, model-making, storytelling, crafts, and standing under their skylight and screaming (for help, though Jack thinks it’s a game). Although they watch television for education and distraction, Ma limits its use, warning that it can turn your brain to mush.
As a reader, it’s easy to be lulled by the rhythm of their days until the horror of their situation reasserts itself (and the harrowing second half of the book begins). “It is a nightmare for Ma, but she’s managed to create an idyll for Jack within it, so she benefits too. She gets to escape from her situation by entering into this fantasy that they live in this world of only two people,” Donoghue says. “In a way they are their own society.”
This unique relationship gets right to the heart of Room—a book that illuminates the intimate bond between mother and child, and finds beauty in the unbearable.