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[333] Room: A Novel – Emma Donoghue

” Room is real for real, but maybe Outside is too only it’s got a cloak of invisibility on like Prince Jacker Jack in the story? ” [63]

For the entire five years of his life Jack has never left the 11-by-11 foot room where lives with his mother. Room constitutes Jack’s entire world, to the extent that anything that exists outside of the confine of the windowless Room simply isn’t real. Like TV. Donoghue fills us on Jack’s world in his words, but limited perspective: We know what Jack knows, and most of the time, we learn more than he can yet grasp. What drives the book is the gap between Jack’s understanding and the reader’s.

Between the new-minted language and odd syntax that befit a child, it’s revealed that Room is actually a cork-lined dungeon in which Jack and his mother are held captive. They are at the mercy of one Old Nick who holds a key of the shed and rations their provisions. To Jack Room is a haven because his mother has created a sanctuary in which she nourishes him. To his mother it’s a jail, for she is kept there against her will for seven years.

Jack’s mother is without a sympathetic figure. Aware that her son is growing up and claustrophobia slowly sets in, she contemplates an escape. Concomitant to their liberty (my apology for the spoiler) are issues concerning Jack’s cognitive distortions, and most importantly, establishing the separation from his mother that must take place in order for the boy to develop into his own person. Up to this point the child doesn’t comprehend the startling fact that he’s not the only other person who exists.

The one flaw that offsets the unique premise and creativity of the book is the lack of depth in which Donoghue would explore the gamut of emotions that should befall anyone who has been held in captivity for years. Consider the details (at times contrived) she goes into the regimened life in the Room, the post-liberation life is drawing a blank, which is a grave oversight. There exists an unforgivable disconnection between the intense trauma during captivity and the casual voice with which the novel is told.

321 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]
Room is shortlisted for Independent Literary Award: Literary Fiction.

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32 Responses

  1. I agree. I found this novel to be rather dull. Jack became tiresome once they left the room and I needed more substance. At times it felt like a stunt- Donoghue going “Look what I can do.” Similar ground was covered better in Jan Elizabeth Watson’s wonderful ASTA IN THE WINGS, also about isolated children released into the world, but written in beautiful literary language and from an intelligent point of view.

    • Donoghue is very brave to use this approach in telling the story. I have no problem with the inconsistency of Jack’s knowledge, but I just feel the book is getting weaker as I read along.

  2. I agree. I found this novel to be rather dull. Jack became tiresome once they left the room and I needed more substance. At times it felt like a stunt- Donoghue going “Look what I can do.” Similar ground was covered better in Jan Elizabeth Watson’s wonderful ASTA IN THE WINGS, also about isolated children released into the world, but written in beautiful literary language and from an intelligent point of view that nonetheless maintains the wonder, confusion and curiosity about the larger world.

  3. Thats the first not so positive review of this book that I have read. I skimmed tehf irst couple of chapters while I was waiting at a book shop and I was a bit worried that the child narrator would begin to get on my nerves a bit, but I am still convinced that is a book I should read this year

    • I know I’m one of the very few who doesn’t like the book. My problem is not with the narrative voice as some have pointed out, but the flaw that Donoghue hasn’t invested in exploring the post-trauma reactions. I want to know what happens to Jack after he left the Room. I just feel Donoghue is lazy in exploring these important issues. The book reads like an incomplete draft.

  4. I also agree. Too gimmicky for my taste and that gimmick restricts the depth of the novel as you suggest. Hats off for sustaining a child’s perspective throughout but even that was done unevenly with completely unbelievable cognitive leaps.

    • Gimmicky is just the word I was looking for! 🙂 The disconnection between the child’s age and his leap in knowledge also bothers me a bit.

  5. I won this from Katrina from Stone Soup and have just started it. I like the language – sort of short hand as it were from Jack’s side. Thanks for the review.

  6. I have read similar concerns about this book. I hope I would get one from my bookshop and read soon.

  7. I agree. This book lacked a depth that was needed in order to properly tell the story of Ma and Jack. Donoghue fell short of truly capturing the essence of the story she wanted to tell by having Jack be the narrator. Such a disappointment considering all the accolades it received.

    • At one point I was nudged to the thought like Donoghue wants to capture the life in the Room and how Ma, despite her being kept there against her will, nourished an intense bonding to her son, protecting him and managing to survive. But after they successfully escaped from the dungeon, the book is lacking the depth to explore why Ma made all the decisions she did.

      • Exactly! I get that Donoghue wanted to share with us this strong bond that Ma has with her son and how much she protects him from the reality of everything, but after their escape things seem to just fall apart. We never truly get the essence of Ma via Jack’s narration, so we never get to know her and why she made the decisions she made (like not telling Jack about Outside prior to the escape plan or why she breastfed Jack for so long, etc). There was so much more that Donoghue could have explored. Oh well.

  8. This is the first non-gushing review of this I’ve read. I’m intrigued by the premise, hope to find time to pick this one up soon.

    • I knew I would not like this book as much as I have enjoyed Donoghue’s previous ones. I read through it because it nonetheless leaves lots of leads for discussion. I’m the pink sheep in this case. 🙂

  9. I am almost done with C and will be getting to Room within the next day or so. I purposely made it my last book because I have not really had a desire to read it, but now that I have all the others behind me, I can clear my head and really pay attention to it. Many are divided on this one.

    • This one probably gets the most attention out of the entire shortlist. I read through the first chapter of C and Great House, they just read better than Room. It’s safe for me to say that Room would be my very bottom choice out of the list.

  10. Well, I was on the “love” end of the spectrum on this one. I thought it was brilliant, if not completely fleshed out once they escaped. I didn’t really need it though. I thought her grasp of the implications were beyond anything I could even dream of, and I was completely blown away by her genius.

    • See it’s good to see all the disparaging opinions from bloggers. Even though I am not impressed by the book, it helps me and enlightens me to read opposing opinions. I do not doubt the creative voice of Jack, the book just doesn’t seem to be complete.

  11. […] [333] Room: A Novel – Emma Donoghue […]

  12. There’s been such mixed thoughts on this one and so much to talk about that I feel I must read it!

  13. I’ve seen this hit so many bloggers ‘best of 2010’ lists but there are a couple people like yourself who weren’t so enthralled. That’s good for me because now if and wehn I do read it, I won’t have such high expectations, which usually lead to disappointment for me and books.

    I hope your next book is better!

    • I like the first half so much better than the second half. Donoghue does a great job portraying life in Room by using Jack’s voice. The Room is a jail and a sanctuary. It’s where Jack was born and has lived since his birth. It makes the story more interesting and suspenseful because readers only know what Jack knows. The second half just doesn’t live up to my expectation at all.

  14. I will place myself in the “loved” group on this one. the lack of depth of emotion …well, I don’t agree. if it had been told from the mother’s point of view, yes. But told from the boy’s experience, no. The room is his only reality, one carefully created by his mother, as much as she could, to protect him.
    I think part of the whole point is how unprepared that left him for the breath or reality..and emotion…he experienced when they escaped.

    • I think the first half, narrated by the little boy, is brilliant, and I don’t find reading pidgin troublesome. I am disappointed because I had totally different expectation than what Donoghue wants to explore after their escape in the second half. I feel the second part is just not glued together and her interview on TV just doesn’t explore all the emotions of her being kept in the room against her will over the years.

  15. I haven’t read this one yet but it sits on my shelf at home, ready at any time. This book brought to mind the Jaycee Dugard story which happened so close to where we both live. I’m fascinated to think of how her children grew up and what kind of reality was constructed for them. This book got such rave reviews initially but lately I have been reading more reviews that seem to find it mediocre. I’m anxious to see what I will think about it.

    • To make the long story shirt, this is my least favorite from Emma Donoghue. I’ve liked everything I’ve read by her, especially Landing and Slammaskin.

  16. […] the intense trauma during captivity and the casual voice with which the novel is told.” A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook (Warning: […]

  17. […] have a hint of his father’s job to oversee Jewish concentration camp. How about the recent Room by Emma Donoghue, in which Jack, a 5-year-old boy, narrates (captive) life in a room with his […]

  18. […] Matt@ A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook: The one flaw that offsets the unique premise and creativity of the book is the lack of depth in which Donoghue would explore the gamut of emotions that should befall anyone who has been held in captivity for years. Consider the details (at times contrived) she goes into the regimened life in the Room, the post-liberation life is drawing a blank, which is a grave oversight. There exists an unforgivable disconnection between the intense trauma during captivity and the casual voice with which the novel is told. […]

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