If you can imagine growing up in one room with no windows, no concept of outside, and no human contact other than your mother, you probably don’t need to read this book. “Room” by Emma Donoghue is the story of 5-year-old Jack and his Ma, a woman who was kidnapped and has been imprisoned in a room for 7 years. The story, told through Jack’s eyes, captures the dueling emotions of Ma, who is terrified and growing desperate, and Jack, who has known only the joy of being raised by a loving mother in what he considers home. Jack loyally portrays the world that he sees even as he struggles to make sense of what he does not understand.
Despite being in an impossible situation, Ma creates a good life for Jack. She uses every resource she has to teach him and keep him entertained. At one point, she constructs a makeshift ruler using the width of a ceiling tile as 1 foot to teach Jack how to measure. Jack runs around measuring everything in the room, and you get a sense of how tiny the room actually is. To build Jack’s vocabulary, Ma invents a game in which Jack must mute the TV and repeat the words the people on TV say. But she doesn’t let Jack watch a lot of TV, instead keeping him engaged by allowing him to run around a track drawn on the floor for physical fitness, teaching him to read, telling him stories and teaching him songs that she remembers. In fact, Jack grows up thinking that everything on TV and outside of Room is in outer space.
[Spoiler alert] To escape their prison, Ma must completely reverse Jack’s thinking about the world, his Ma and their situation. When Jack and Ma finally join the outside world, the roles reverse: Room was a nightmare for Ma, but the outside world is terrifying to Jack who must contend with germs, sunburn, social rules, and the conflicting emotions of relatives who try to accept where Jack came from. But little Jack has a strength matched only by his mother’s.
I adored this book, despite the awful premise upon which the story is built. The book illustrates how people can find strength they never imagined to overcome impossible situations. But mostly, I loved the narrator. Jack come across as an intelligent boy who is both funny and heartbreaking. (My friend Laurie says that Jack is impossibly intelligent in the book, but the reader is somehow okay accepting this.) Here are some Jack-isms that should make you run out and buy this book immediately:
At one point Jack bumps his head on the faucet of the bathtub and his grandma says “careful.” Jack thinks to himself: “Why do persons only say that after the hurt?”
“In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time. … In Room me and Ma had time for everything. I guess the time gets spread very thin like butter over all the world, the roads and houses and playgrounds and stores, so there’s only a little smear of time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit.”
I strongly recommend this book.