“Room” by Emma Donoghue

Donoghue, Emma. Room 
New York: Little, Brown, 2010 
ISBN 978-0-316-09833-5

Five-year-old Jack lives with Ma in an 11-foot square room. This room is Jack’s whole world. It’s where he eats and plays and learns. It’s where he watches the unreal pictures, made only of colors, on the television. Room is filled with Jack’s friends: Bed, Shelf, Door, Books, Rug, Rocker—and Wardrobe, where Ma tucks Jack in to sleep at night to keep him away from Old Nick, the frequent visitor who makes the bed squeak.

One of the most difficult undertakings for a novelist is to write a book for adults that features a child narrator. And the younger the child, the more difficult the task. The writer must maintain a credible child’s voice, with age-appropriate diction and reasoning, while at the same time communicating to the reader concepts and facts that the child cannot understand. And the younger the child narrator, the more difficult is the writer’s task.

Yet Donoghue’s decision to narrate this novel in Jack’s five-year-old voice is precisely what makes the novel work. Here’s an example of Jack’s description of his world:

We have thousands of things to do every morning, like give Plant a cup of water in Sink for no spilling, then put her back on her saucer on Dresser. Plant used to live on Table but God’s face burned a leaf of her off. She has nine left, they’re the wide of my hand with furriness all over, like Ma says Dogs are. But dogs are only TV. I don’t like nine. I find a tiny leaf coming, that counts as ten. (p. 8)

Donoghue’s focus on the child’s wonder and joy of each day’s activities and on the obvious love between Jack and Ma, who has managed to build as normal a life as possible for her child under horrific circumstances, keeps the story from seeming ghoulish and exploitative.

Like, probably, most people in the United States, I initially thought that Donoghue must have based this novel on the experiences of Jaycee Dugard, the California girl who was kidnapped and held captive for 18 years, during which time she gave birth to two children. But, in fact, the original germ for this novel was the Josef Fritzl kidnapping case in Austria. Fritzl imprisoned his daughter, Elisabeth, in a soundproofed dungeon he had constructed in his basement when she was 18. He kept her there for 24 years, during which she gave birth to seven children by him. (One child died in infancy.) The case came to light in 2008, when one of the children became ill and had to be taken to a hospital.

Criticized for exploiting crime victims by writing this novel, Donoghue told a reporter for The Guardian, a newspaper in the United Kingdom:

“To say Room is based on the Fritzl case is too strong,” she says firmly. “I’d say it was triggered by it. The newspaper reports of Felix Fritzl [Elisabeth’s son], aged five, emerging into a world he didn’t know about, put the idea into my head. That notion of the wide-eyed child emerging into the world like a Martian coming to Earth: it seized me.”

© 2011 by Mary Daniels Brown

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