Few novels enter the public consciousness with the speed that Emma Donoghue’s Room did when it was first published in 2010. Shortlisted for practically every literary award going, a stalwart of book clubs, and selling millions of copies around the world, there was a feeling that a writer’s time had come with a book that was as compulsively readable as it was chilling. Donoghue, the author of several critically acclaimed novels that explore topics as diverse as grief, female sexuality, and scandals of the past, had already built an army of admirers who valued the raw, painful honesty of Hood as much as the colourful historical recreations of Slammerkin, but it was with Room that she reached her widest audience. As timely as it was surprising, the novel draws on one of the least palatable news stories of recent years and blends that reality with our own deepest fears to create an unforgettable tale. In less careful hands, the novel might have come across as exploitative or calculated; in Donoghue’s it results in a powerful and provocative work of art.
What are we most afraid of? Violence, certainly. An unexpected assault upon our bodies. The loss of our liberty and the threat of incarceration. Cruelty towards our children. The things that keep us awake at night, those horrors that haunt our dreams, can also be the stuff of literature, describing our inhumanity and baser instincts with a precision that nurtures, in its brutality, a peculiarly modern twist.
When the case of Josef Fritzl came to light in 2008, it became an immediate conversation point around the world. What degree of psychopathy, we wondered, what level of misogynistic rage, could lead a man to imprison his daughter in an underground room for a quarter of a century, to abuse and rape her, to impregnate her repeatedly and to use fear and intimidation to ensure that neither she nor the children she bore him made any attempt at escape? It was a grotesque situation, the plot of a Hollywood movie transported to a small Austrian town, and as more details emerged of Fritzl’s crimes, the horror was only equalled by a universal hunger for more information. In a sense, we became voyeurs to that terrible story, never stopping to ask why men commit these crimes against women or why they feel the need to imprison them to satisfy their desire for control. For of course, this was not just Elisabeth Fritzl’s story. It belonged to others too. Jaycee Lee Dugard, the eleven-year-old Californian girl, kidnapped and kept captive for eighteen years. Alba Alvarez in Colombia, who, like Elisabeth, was kept hostage for twenty-five years by a father who sired fourteen children with her. Natascha Kampusch in Vienna, who spent eight years in captivity until she managed to escape.
One of the strengths of Room is that it does not try to understand the mind of a man – in this case ‘Old Nick’ – who would commit such despicable acts, for even in fiction, where the imagination rules all and the improbable can be made possible by a deft plot turn or an unexpected intervention, there are matters which defy reason. We do not need to know why he has done these things, or why any of his real-life counterparts behave in such a way, for in explanations lie logic, in logic lies understanding, and in understanding lies approval and forgiveness, none of which can be afforded to such behaviour.
Old Nick remains a shadowy figure through the narrative and he is all the more frightening for his silence. We cannot gain an insight into what has led him to a place of such cruelty, for this is Jack’s story, not his, but like Ma we grow to fear the sound of the door opening, and of his footsteps coming in and above all the moments when the boy must hide in the wardrobe while his captor commits the most physical and heinous of his crimes.
There is an element of the fairy tale in the construction of Room and, like most fairy tales, a sense of wonder created by our narrator that only masks the horrors that lie beneath. Ma could be a character out of one of the more disturbing Grimm Brothers stories, an innocent young woman locked away in a tower – or in this case, a shed – and left there to rot by an evil Rumpelstiltskin. But there are no knights approaching the fortress, determined to return her to safety; all the planning and execution has to be undertaken by Ma and Jack themselves. The novel has literary precedent too in books as diverse as The Man in the Iron Mask and Papillon, with the theme of an innocent sentenced to a life of imprisonment with no chance of release.
The mistake that is too easily made with the novel, however, is thinking of it as a book about a kidnapping or a forced incarceration. These might be the things that happen in Room but they are not what Room is about. For at its heart, this is a novel about parenthood, about the love that a mother has for her son (regardless of the circumstances of that son’s conception) and the absolute trust that a small child can have in the world around him. There are two depictions of manhood here: one, fully formed, revels in creating pain, for in the free world Old Nick moves around with a chaos in his mind that he is unable to control. The other, still in its youthful stages, feels nothing but love and trust and it is somewhat ironic that in his prison Jack maintains a serenity and an acceptance of his tiny universe that few people ever achieve.
The indestructible bond between a mother and her child is perhaps the key theme of Room. Ma’s strength of purpose, her commitment to the physical and emotional well-being of five-year-old Jack, shows her to be a character of extraordinary resilience, even on the days when she is overcome by despair and can barely speak to him. It is one of the great depictions of maternal determination in contemporary literature but the relationship is well balanced, for one feels that without Jack to keep her going, without the focus that he brings to her days, she might not have been able to endure her tormented life for as long as she has. In educating her son, in teaching him to respect his body and to understand the importance of personal hygiene, she maintains her own link with the outside world and with her own humanity, without which she might succumb to the filth and depression that her captor has thrust upon her.
Ma’s preoccupation with ensuring that Jack remains healthy and unharmed, along with the routines that she insists upon in his daily life, make his existence not entirely different to other children. He has never known a world outside Room, of course, but the relationships he has with Rug and Skylight, with Watch and Meltedy Spoon, are the equivalent of lifelong friendships that he might have formed with neighbour children, had his life developed in a different manner. He does not call the spatial confines of his world into question and is happy living with Ma in the only world that he has ever known, and such is his tranquillity there that one rather fears for what might happen to him should he ever be released.
The novel is effectively divided into two halves – inside and outside Room – and the bridge between the two contains an exciting and heart-stopping scene as Ma’s plan for their escape is finally put into motion. For a little while, the novel becomes the best thriller you’ll ever read, the pages filled with exhilaration, energy, suspense and fear. It’s a pleasing change of pace after the claustrophobia of Room itself and sets the story up for the denouement, as we begin to understand the effect that years of incarceration have had on Jack and Ma.
Perhaps the most successful element of Emma Donoghue’s novel, however, is the narrative voice itself. Anyone familiar with the challenges of writing young adult literature will recognize the difficulties of capturing the voice of a child in an authentic fashion while avoiding cliché and sentimentality. But to write a novel for adults narrated by a five-year-old and for the naiveté of that child’s voice not only to sustain the narrative over three hundred pages but also to enrich and enliven it is an incredibly complex task. But Jack is a confident narrator and his positivity and love for Ma endears him to the reader. Just as Ma takes care of him, he takes care of her too, and while we might be one step ahead of him in understanding the trauma into which he has been born and the various deceits that Ma must allow herself in order to keep him safe, we also care deeply that he be shielded from the truth. To enlighten him could shatter his youthful optimism and bring the intense solidarity that the two occupants of Room share crashing down.
If the first half of the novel is defined by Donoghue’s skill in capturing Jack’s voice of pure acceptance, the second is characterized by the fear and dismay engendered by his sudden and unexpected entry into the world out side Room. Some of the most heartbreaking passages in the novel concern the child’s inability to cope with the sights, sounds, and smells of the enormous universe in which he suddenly finds himself, and our concern as readers is that it might already be too late for him and he might never be able to function successfully outside Room itself. The necessary separation between Ma and Jack, as they come to terms with their experiences in different and often surprising ways, brings further isolation into their lives and there are moments when one wonders whether re integration into society is even possible or whether a world that contains more than two people is one in which this mother and son can survive.
The novel ends on a pensive note, a moment of reacquaintance and farewell that seems entirely appropriate to the subject matter, leaving the reader anxious for what the future might hold for Room’s protagonists. And yet there is hope, for Emma Donoghue’s great skill lies not in the creation of two victims but in the construction of a heroic pair, a mother and son whose future might be uncertain but who will surely face whatever is to come together.