Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

I don’t need to use this space to praise Donoghue’s writing in Room; plenty of others have done that already (including Aimee Bender at The New York Times  and Nicola Barr at the Guardian).

A quick summary: Room is a story told through the eyes of five-year-old jack, a precocious and inquisitive child born within the confines of a windowless shed. This shed has been used by his young mother’s abductor/rapist to hold them both captive for his entire life (and the last seven years of hers. Jack knows no life beyond this one, and has been told by his mother that everything they see on the television is pretend. Reality is that one room. When he gets old enough to start questioning what happens beyond, his mother (identified only as Ma) explains the truth of their situation. Bouncing from acceptance, to anger, to fear, Jack and Ma set out a plan to escape.

The book has hauntingly effective prose. Jack’s voice draws you in and sometimes makes you forget how heartbreaking the actual events surrounding the narrative really are.

Digging a little deeper into commentary on the book, I found articles suggesting that it is a call for attachment parenting. (For example, this one at Becoming Mamas). Then I found Donoghue’s response  to those inquiries, which basically ends with a plea to stop judging one another’s parenting approaches and a vow to put this non-judgment into practice herself:

“Yesterday in Toys R Us (where I went, most unwillingly, to buy the three-year-old the purple ZhuZhu Pet she craves for her birthday) there was a little girl – no older than three – in high heels. In fact, in a complete copy of her mother's outfit. My teeth clamped together. I was within an inch of saying, "Excuse me, do you realize you're crippling your child because you're a narcissist?" Only the awareness that it would lead to a strained silence at best, a trashy catfight in the aisles at worst, kept my mouth shut. I talked myself down: she's not beating the little girl's soles with a thorny branch. Probably the kid spends most of the day in trainers and this is just a special dress-up moment. But I was judging, all right. And what annoyed me most was that the little girl looked as happy as Larry.”

There are a lot of aspects of the book I found interesting (including the positive view on breastfeeding, which blue milk talks about here), but the one I’m most drawn to is a larger discussion on media dealing with child-trauma.

This has been on my mind because someone on a message board I visited posted to urge new mothers not to watch Rabbit Hole. She said that it was too difficult to think of a child dying in a car accident and that she’d wished she hadn’t seen it.

Interestingly enough, I had just watched the movie 21 Grams, which also involves the death of children in a car accident. It was difficult to think about the pain the mother (who also lost her husband) must have been feeling.

The reviewer from Becoming Mamas admits that she “was hesitant to review and recommend this book because it really affected me, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to recommend that others go through those same feelings.”

My last post talked about the “damage” of motherhood, and I think this fear of traumatic media is related. Being so responsible for someone else’s life shifts the center of empathy a little. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Should we avoid books and movies that evoke that response?

Because all meaning must be filtered through a lens of personal experience, it’s nearly impossible to read Room and not imagine yourself in the place of one of the characters at least a little bit. But literature often calls on us to metaphorically step into places we wouldn’t want to step into literally. (Kafka’s Gregor Samsa calls on us to imagine complete isolation; Steinbeck repeatedly asks us to view the world through troubled eyes, and I know that I enjoyed reading The Road primarily because of the emotions it calls forth). And I think it is only natural for a parent reading Room to feel compelled to look at the fictional world through Ma’s eyes.

One of the quotes praising Room on the book jacket is from Audrey Niffenegger. She says of the book “When it’s over you look up: the world looks the same but you are somehow different and that feeling lingers for days.”

I think the feeling she talks of is intense empathy, and that is a valuable thing. Literature, when it is at it’s best, pushes us to limits of experience that we cannot (and should not, God willing) reach in our actual, tangible lives.


  1. Room is a captivating, unique novel that, while it seems unbelievable, a quick glance at the newsstand proves that it is a story ripped from the headlines. Five year old Jack is the narrator of this unique story. If you have recently had a conversation with a five year old, you know that it can be a bit tough to follow their train of thought. But, trust me, stick with Jack, his story is one you won't want to miss. Emma Donoghue has brilliantly portrayed a five year old's life in a solitary room. She has created this world that, just like the nightly news, is something that fascinates us and captivates us at the same time.

  2. Great book, kept my interest the entire time. I love the way it was written from the boy's point of view!

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