Emma Donoghue: Room

I first heard about this book on the Man Booker Prize forum, where some speculated that this – reportedly an expensive acquisition for its UK publishers Picador, and destined to be much-hyped – could be in with a shot of the prize. As I write, it’s been longlisted (though we’re told it was called in by the judges, not submitted by the publisher: so not quite so hyped then). The news is a triumph for Donoghue, an Irish-born writer living in Canada, who had cult success with a couple of early books in the UK (notably Hood and Slammerkin), but didn’t have the two novels which preceded Room published here – yet.

Room has an intriguing premise: it’s narrated by a five-year-old boy who lives in a room twelve feet square and doesn’t know the outside world exists. This immediately set my reading glands salivating: I imagined an allegorical, philosophical novel, a European-style confection that provided an analysis of all our lives by an extrapolation to the extreme, something like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. So my disappointment with Room is partly unreasonable, denouncing it for not being a different book entirely.

Donoghue’s book, contrary to my expectations, is grounded in reality: not only a recognisable time and place (the USA, around now, with cultural references aplenty, from Lady Gaga to Facebook), but with clear inspiration from news stories in recent years of long abductions, in particular the Fritzl case. The boy, Jack, lives with his ‘Ma’ in the room, and he was born there: in other words, Jack is the product of Ma’s rape by her abductor, known to mother and son as ‘Old Nick’. That is not a spoiler, though there are developments in the book that I don’t want to reveal, so I’ll be pretty vague from here on. Nonetheless it’s clear that Room aims at the heart rather than the head, and for many people the emotional heft of the story will be enough to recommend it.

A child’s narrative is always tricky to pull off. Jack’s is readable but a bit too cute (“Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh”), and as usual with such stories, the author’s great task is to give the reader enough information to read between the lines without having the narrator go into an unnatural amount of detail. This is handled pretty well, but like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – another tale of parent and child in extremis – there’s a sort of sentimentality which is all the more overbearing for being notionally concealed by the naive voice. The reader has to find the emotional tug between the lines, but because it’s there on every page, it’s impossible not to, and the reader feels falsely flattered as a result.

Room certainly has strengths. It is a quick read, and at times gripping and urgent (particularly in part three, which comes immediately before a significant plot development), though this has the unfortunate effect of making the parts before and after seem dull and overstretched at times. And the strong conceit of the book enables the reader to consider some interesting contrasts and paradoxes: how absolute innocence can coexist with absolute – for want of a better word – wickedness; how the ordeal led Ma to give birth to Jack, who is the one thing that now helps her through it. There are moments of conflict that stand out, such as when Jack objects to his birthday cake (he has just turned five when the book begins):

Then it’s time for the candles but there aren’t any.

‘You’re shouting again,’ says Ma, covering her ears.

‘But you said a birthday cake, it’s not a birthday cake if there’s no five candles on fire.’

She puffs her breath. ‘I should have explained better. That’s what the five chocolates say, they say you’re five.’

‘I don’t want this cake.’ I hate it when Ma waits all quiet. ‘Stinky cake.’

‘Calm down, Jack.’

‘You should have asked for candles for Sundaytreat.’

‘Well, last week we needed painkillers.’

‘I didn’t need any, just you,’ I shout.

However I have to admit that the most common feeling I experienced when reading Room was boredom. While it is essential for Donoghue to relate Jack’s experiences in sufficient detail to give the narrative authenticity (so it looks as though it’s coming from him in real time, and not being told to explain things to the reader), it turns out that a little of this actually goes quite a long way. And although I relished the opportunity to make my own interpretation of Ma’s trauma through Jack’s limited insight, this underplaying means that there are not many points in the book where the reader feels that real peril is at hand. It dwindles almost to nothing in the second half. In the end, although Room manages not to be ghoulish or exploitative about the real cases which were (according to the acknowledgements) its inspiration, it also fails to capitalise on the wonderful fictional opportunities that such a set-up promises.


  1. When I saw your 3/10 remark on twitter yesterday I was expecting a much more scathing review from you, but this actually seems quite balanced. I LOVED Room. It was packed with emotion and changed the way I look at the world a little bit.

    I agree that the end section of the book was the best, but I think that it also made the first half of the book even more important in retrospect.

    I’m really hoping that Room makes the Booker short list.

  2. Given the complexities of `C’ which I enjoyed reading about in your excellent review, this novel sounds to me like a fictionalised `misery memoir’. ( Did you know that WH Smiths has a whole section dedicated to these books?) Perhaps the Booker judges have deliberately chosen a wide range of different fiction in order to appeal to the widest readership? Because the real Fritzl case is so recent and memorable it would make me feel a bit queasy to read a novel that is so clearly based on it and it does sound a bit Richard and Judy. Though to be fair when R and J started out they reviewed some terrific books but then it all started to slide relentlessly downmarket.

  3. I’m in two minds about reading this. On the one hand, I’m curious to see how Donoghue handles such an emotionally provocative subject, but on the other, I’m worried about the exploitation of the real-life cases. You say that she manages to avoid that, though, which is encouraging. The other thing, though, is that I think I might be sucked into the emotional aspects in the same way that I fall for every tug of the heartstrings in films, so I’ll either be such a pool of snot that I won’t be able to keep any critical distance from the novel, or I’ll be too distracted by trying not to be manipulated.

    Maybe best that I leave it well alone!

  4. Jackie, I actually meant to say 4/10 in response to dovegreyreader’s query on Twitter! Though that might still have led you to expect a hatchet job. I suppose I could have attacked the book more viciously – my overall impression is that I didn’t like it – but that would be to deny the fact that there were parts that I enjoyed, and also that I could see what other readers might get out of it.

    Mary, yes, even our local Waterstone’s has such a section (or did have – I don’t mind it much, as at least it prevents those titles from contaminating the rest of the Biography section). In WHSmith the section is usually called ‘Painful Lives’. The latest issue of Private Eye showed a photo of one such section into which someone had prominently placed a copy of Peter Mandelson’s The Third Man. Boom boom!

    Kirsty, I’m not recommending the book, but as you know yourself, really the only way to find the answers to those rhetorical questions is to read it…

  5. By chance I read this book before it was longlisted, and even though I loved it (I read it in one sitting, would you believe, I simply could not put it down and it was raining outside and I had nothing better to be doing with my time), I admit that I was surprised to see it on the longlist. It does feel very accessible and “populist” but maybe that’s a good thing?

    I liked the emotional power of the story and having recently just spent some time with a precocious 5-year-old intelligent beyond her years, I thought Jack’s voice rang true. But… but… I can see it’s not “high-brow” literature (whatever that means) and the voice can be wearing after awhile (more so in the first half, than the second). Plus, in the immediate afterglow of having read it, I thought it was the best thing I’d read all year. Now, a few weeks down the line the “glow” has worn off… but I still think it’s a damn fine read.

    I’m interested in the fictional opportunities you thought it didn’t capitalise on… Can you elaborate further?

  6. Yes Kim, I was really just summarising my opening point, which was that I expected (and would have preferred) a different book altogether! When I first read about it, it was just that stark description of a boy in a room who doesn’t know the outside world exists, and I didn’t realise it was an abduction story in general, nor that it was based on well-known incidents in particular. As such I was hoping for something much more allegorical/existential/philosophical than this – which would be possible without rendering it unpalatable to the wider public (see, in fiction, Never Let Me Go or, in cinema, The Truman Show for examples of intelligent but popular ways of approaching this).

    I should also make it absolutely clear that my objection to Room is not that it’s populist/accessible/not “high-brow” – I don’t care a damn for that. It’s that it is, at the end of the day, an idea fizzing with possibility but rendered pretty unexceptionally.

    1. Fair enough, but surely you should judge a book on its merits, not what you *expected* it to be? (Mind you, I will be the first to put up my hand and say I have been guilty of this in the past.)

      I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that this is a book that appeals to women and not men, because all the negative reviews seem to come from the male camp. But perhaps I’m generalising?

  7. The child narration (with a few salient examples I read elsewhere) led me to think I would dislike this book, and you’ve reiterated that feeling. I tend to dislike child narrations anyway.

  8. How does the kid know about candles on birthday cakes? If he’s five how many previous birthdays can he remember, two perhaps three? Did those have candles?

    Whoosh. Hm.

    Anyway, definitely not for me. As for the numerical score, I can think of few things more scathing to say of a book than that it bored.

  9. You went out of your way not to spoil and I’ll try to do the same. Despite some problems (like capital letters for furniture) I was willing to go along with the author as the book unfolded. But at the halfway point when she opted for a journalism approach, instead of a novelist, she lost me.

    I think kimbofo has a good point that those who react to books emotionally probably will find more in this novel than those who approach their fiction from a different point of view. On the other hand, we know from the MB forum that two very good female readers (dovegreyreader and emilyanne) found the book so bad that they abandoned it. So I don’t think it comes down to a male/female thing.

      1. Scratch that. Have had a brain freeze. (It’s been a long day tagging and categorising 200+ articles for a yet-to-be launched website at work. Mind numbing doesnt even come close.)

  10. Yes, you know me, I’ll buy into a book at an emotional level every time, especially given a child narrator, but this left me strangely cold, twice.
    I went back to it again having felt I’d dismissed it unfairly and too readily but nothing could keep me reading. I almost disappointed myself because these are the sort of books I love to write about. Ho hum, another day another reading mood perhaps, I’m sure I’ll end up finding its child psychology merits and eating humble pie about it eventually.

  11. Of the books on the longlist I’ve read, this is by far the worst. It’s a good idea frittered, as John says. Excrutiatingly bad at times. But an interesting effort, no question.

  12. Would love to know what you think of Forgetting Zoe which I was disappointed to see didn’t make the longlist. As it is a similar theme I doubt there would have been room (pun acknowledged but not intended) for that and this on the same list.

  13. Well I read about 150 pages of Forgetting Zoe, Scott, and it wasn’t much tickling me so I didn’t carry on. I’m afraid that even at this close distance (maybe a couple of months on) all I can remember about my feelings is that I thought the prose a bit too effortful and showy (I know! Me, a Martin Amis fan, complaining about that!).

  14. Thanks for your apt review. Until your write and my read, I have neither heard of Donoghue nor Room, as a novel, before. Thanks for bringing this to my notice. And it is a Booker longlist, right? Let’s see what comes out of that…

  15. Thanks Tomcat – I was very pleased to see in your review that I wasn’t the only one expecting an “abstract, experimental” novel based on the blurb. Unlike you, I’m not sure I ever got over that disappointment.

  16. Hi Rebecca – and it’s good to know that I’m not the only one too! It seems to have been universally praised in the press. Even the level-headed Ron Charles (see here for his hilarious assessment of the Booker Prize shortlist) loved it.

  17. I didn’t love it at all. I thought, as mentioned above, that it was an interesting idea moderately executed. But I’d go as far as saying that, were it to triumph over In A Strange Room (which may well be a masterpiece – time will tell),The Finkler Question or C it’d be an absolute disaster of a verdict.

  18. Today when Dark went I started to read Room. I’m at page twenty, that’s smaller than my age but the same as my fingers and toes all together. The book has three hundred and sixty one pages and I’m asking Baby Jesus to please make them go away or if he can’t do that magic to make them go fast. A fly is buzz buzz buzzing around here while I’m writing this on Computer and I might use Room to make him go splat splat splat and then it could be fun.

  19. Today I ended Room. I think Baby Jesus must be TV and not real because he didn’t make it go fast like I asked him to. It was all draggy and hundreds of hours and the same things were done and said over and over. Room says right , “Lots of world seems to be a repeat”.

    I think the ladies and men who make the books into paper for money told the writer, her name is Emma like Ma but with a Em in front, not to let Room free until they saw a big truck going by that was called Bandwagon, and then to put Room on it to let it go free to anyone in Outside. And then it would jump off the truck and run up to some men and ladies and say please give me a big prize because I sound like a five years old person. (Except when I have to tell the adult talkings I can do it perfect because it was lucky that I played Parrot so much. Though why I never learned to ask a question in a grammatically correct way if Parrot was so good?)

    Tomorrow is Sunday and for Sundaytreat I’m going to read a book that has bigger ideas and more than one.

      1. You liked the book then, Kara? I thought Salamander’s response was a pretty funny way of saying what he (or she!) didn’t like about it. I think that should come across just as clearly to someone who liked the book.

  20. It’s very interesting that you assume Salamander to be a ‘gentleman’. You may, of course, be correct but nonetheless, had the comment on the book been favourable, would you have leapt the other way?

  21. I would not, Salamander. I was merely referencing the old House of Commons response which is typically in the male form – probably because historically (and still), the majority of Members of Parliament are men.

    You might, of course, have questioned why I assumed you were honourable!

  22. I actually just blogged about this book also (http://chawshop.blogspot.com/2010/10/child-neglect-some-thoughts-on-emma.html), and was poking around the web to read other folks’ thoughts, since I’m a little surprised at the largely positive critical reception it’s gotten. You are right on, especially in the point you make about how the book is surprisingly boring, particularly toward the end. It’s strange how Jack’s childish play-by-play of events has a way of muting their inherent drama.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading this, and am glad to have discovered your site…

  23. I’ve just been given this to read, I’m about 1/3 of the way through and I’m not sure I’m going to finish it. The writing is good enough that I’m uncomfortable, but the premise is so disturbing that I feel dirty reading it–Ma has been raped quite a few times already, although Jack doesn’t know what is happening, and I find it distasteful to read about something so heinous being brushed by lightly–which it has to be because the little boy has no comprehension of what his mother is enduring. I think Donoghue is playing it safe by using Jack as the narrator. It’s not clever to tell it in his voice (which is not the voice of a 5yr old, I’m sorry to say. If he were 8, it would be more authentic sounding), it’s easier so she doesn’t have to deal with what Ma is going through from Ma’s perspective.

    I had a similar feeling reading The Lovely Bones. That was better written but I felt the same sense of being uncomfortable because of the nature of the violence. Real women have suffered what Ma suffers in Room but you never quite feel that she’s suffering, which trivializes her situation instead of engendering sympathy in the reader.

  24. Salamander, dear god, what an amazing pair of comments you left two years ago about Room! I am crying with laughter. I have searched for a long time for a friend or acquaintance to say something other than wonderful things about Room and just found John Self’s great review today. A lot more balanced than I could have managed, I must say. Nice to have a little company in my view of the book. I was starting to think I was losing my mind. You have made an otherwise ordinary day extraordinary for me. I can’t stop smiling 🙂

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