Emma Donoghue is the author of 10 novels, including the bestselling Slammerkin (2000). Her latest novel, Room, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She was born in Dublin in 1969, and has been writing books since the age of 23. She lives in Canada with her partner and their two children.
Room was inspired by the Fritzl story and tells the story of Jack and Ma, who are trapped in the room of the title. You can read Emma’s Anti-Room questionnaire here.
I did not want to read Room. The subject matter is so disturbing. Even as I write now, I’m utterly certain there are as-yet-undiscovered children and women locked up in the way Ma is in Room. Knowing that makes me feel helpless, despairing and ferocious. It did not make me want to read about that world, especially a fictionalised one.
Yet, there it was on my desk, sent in the post. A fortnight later, I eventually opened it. Read a few pages. Gripped. Took it home and read the rest of the book that night.
For me, Room works because it draws you so fluently and convincingly into Jack’s world-within-a-world. It’s his perspective that makes telling this story possible. Lots of showing, not telling. What should be ghastly is funny. The focus of the novel lets in the air that Ma and Jack could never get: the reader can breathe. It’s as much about a beautiful portrait of the relationship of a child with its mother as it is about the circumstances of them being there.
The one part that did not convince me was the ease of Jack’s escape. I don’t believe it. How bizarre – that it’s easier for me as a reader to believe completely in their dreadful hermetic world than the fact that they escape from it in the way they do.
Jack, the five-year-old narrator of Room, is, like most five-year-olds, bright, chatty, imaginative and eagle-eyed. It’s this innocent and unflinching eye for detail that makes his account of life within the eleven-foot by eleven-foot room in which he and his Ma are held captive all the more gut-wrenching. For Jack, sleeping in Wardrobe is nothing out of the ordinary, and playing Scream under Room’s skylight is simply part of the weekday rota of games Ma tirelessly invents to keep him occupied. So when Ma reveals that the world outside is not just “in TV”, and asks for Jack’s help in plotting their escape from Room, Jack’s life is changed utterly, and yet he will do whatever she asks of him.
Emma Donoghue has written a brave book full of fierce and unwavering love, a book which manages to both unsettle and inspire, even weeks after reading. It’s thoroughly deserving of a place on the Booker shortlist.
There was a point, half way through Room, when I would have actually fought anyone who tried to take the book out of my grip. I was walking around with the hardback in my hand, and didn’t stop reading while I made my dinner. Emma Donoghue has already proven herself to be a skilled storyteller, but Room is her boldest book yet. Telling the story in the voice of a child, especially one who has spent his entire life captive in a tiny shed (even if he doesn’t realise he’s a captive) is a huge risk, and against all the odds, Donoghue pulls it off. Jack is that rare thing, a convincing young child narrator, and the gulf between his general happiness and the reader’s awareness of his and his Ma’s horrific situation adds to the novel’s power. I was slightly surprised by the incredibly gushing blurb quotations from writers such as John Boyne and Michael Cunningham - Room is a gripping, powerful novel, but I didn’t think it was a life changer. Maybe they live in a sole diet of very serious literary fiction and don’t realise that compulsive readability is quite common in other genres. But it’s an unputdownable thriller and a deeply moving story of family love told in a unique and convincing voice, and that’s more than enough.
After I saw the bulletin announcing Emma Donoghue’s plan to write Room last autumn, it was clear that I’d read the novel, which would not have been the case if it had been authored by almost anyone else. Donoghue’s gift for weaving stories from news snippets was established with The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits. There was no concern over encounters of ghastly descriptions about sexual assault as with the Stieg Larsson trilogy, or other popular books that deal with victimised women and children. Room bypasses the horror for an emphasis on the love Ma has for her son Jack and their heroic efforts to cope and survive Old Nick’s brutality. Some days, Ma keeps to the bed in a crippling fit of despair and depression. Jack refers to those days as ‘one of the days when Ma is Gone.’ The five year-old takes the opportunity to watch an unlimited amount of television while his mother remains overwhelmed. This is one of many examples Donoghue crafts in order to underscore the difference in perspective between mother and son. The real wonder is how Ma finds the courage to rise from the bed and keep them both alive.
Donoghue’s novel is a flawless achievement. Readers can only pause over how many more women and children are being held in captivity.
Room is out now, published by Picador