I am always on the hunt for a new narrative—not new as in recent, new as in different. I read a lot and I find myself predicting things when they aren’t innovative (this could be a moment for a 50 Shades of Grey rant, but we’ll wait, shall we?). Room immediately appealed to me because it was a child narrator in an extremely unusual situation: the child is the product of a mother, who has been sealed in a shed, by a sexual abuser. The innocence of children, their ability to see the world as unique, beautiful and inspiring, is precisely what one needs to stomach an abuse story.
I’ve read Lolita, Bastard Out of Carolina, and a dozen other stories about abused women, and even abused children, but this story is completely unique among them. Jack, our narrator, is completely unharmed. Ma has protected him so thoroughly that their 11×11 foot cell is Jack’s fairyland, his home, his sanctuary. Ma has even hidden her absolute disgust of the place, her pain, and her nightmare. I was expecting the abuse to be a primary factor in the story but Jack is never exposed to it. Ma keeps him hidden in Wardrobe when Old Nick visits and Jack counts Old Nick’s panting breaths the way other children count sheep; Old Nick is always gone when Jack wakes up.
There are so many deep themes laced into Jack’s whimsical narrative—themes of motherhood, genetics, control, survival, and innovation. Donoghue does a masterful job giving us an understandable story while maintaining a reasonable guise of children’s prose. For a story about sexual abuse, there’s nothing particularly graphic or upsetting. In fact, after Ma and Jack escape, the real world is the most graphic. They are made into instant stars (a woman missing for six years with a five-year-old from her abuser? What news show wouldn’t lose its mind to get the exclusive?) and the outsiders are not nearly so considerate of the harsh and delicate truths as Ma was. Lucky for Jack, he doesn’t fully understand being asked if he was molested, but it jars the reader (and Ma) because he has been so cocooned until now.
One thing that the readers ignore until the media forces us to think about it is the fact that Jack is Old Nick’s son. Old Nick is never called father and he never calls Jack son, Ma certainly never encourages them to interact, and yet her relationship with Jack is intimate, loving, and protective. I have to say that genetics intrigues me—I’m always looking for the nature aspect of nature versus nurture to raise its ugly head. This might be because I read a lot of pre-Enlightenment and Victorian literature where blood will always tell the truth, but I am interested in seeing whether people who share blood, but not raising, can wind up being similar. Then again, don’t we all have our Great Expectations moment of wanting nurture to win? Especially when nurture involves Room (and Wardrobe).
I have to confess that I gave this book 4 stars out of 5 on GoodReads because of this genetic issue Donoghue plays with. I call this my Jane Eyre moment. Once, at a conference, I heard someone present a paper on Jane Eyre and it talked about the mad woman in the attic theory. I hadn’t read the book so I convinced myself that when Jane couldn’t have Mr. Rochester that she went insane and locked herself in an attic. Color me devastated when the ending wasn’t that racy (I still haven’t forgiven Brontë). With Room, I thought the little Easter Eggs of genetic conversation were hinting towards a dark twist, a Humbert Humbert style reveal where we learn that Jack has re-created Room with a captive of his own. For those who like happier endings (or cathartic ones), this book will be far more satisfying in the last few pages: Jack does not inherit any of the craziness that he was conceived from, born into, or raised around. He is a testament to childhood strength, and Ma a testament to maternal endurance.
Speaking of Ma… as scholar of feminism I was of course interested in her. Ma is my age—26. She has a 5-year-old, she was stolen off the streets by a stranger while she was listening to her iPod, and forced into sexual submission. Of course, at first, she didn’t just submit. Ma fought back, but Old Nick had carefully thought about every aspect of her confinement. Want to scream? There is one window—a skylight—and it is soundproof. Want to dig out? The ground is lined with chain-link and the walls are reinforced. You can try to push your way out, but Old Nick is bigger, and stronger, and he will break your wrist and never let you have medical attention. I am all for non-medical birth, I am all for non-intervention for birth, but Ma being forced to give birth absolutely alone (or worse, with Old Nick perversely watching and refusing to help) is torture. Her first baby, a girl, died because of complications in the delivery and Jack, luckily, survives. Ma is a mother bear. She will get between Old Nick and Jack, she will act polite, submit, and even compliment him if it means getting Jack the supplies he needs (Old Nick lets her ask for a Sunday Treat, and she allows herself to beg and grovel to get Jack vitamins and crayons and clothes that fit). For her resilience, she comes off as a strong female character, and there are aspects of her attachment-parenting style that really speak to a mother deeply in tune with and devoted to her child. For Jack’s health, she breastfeeds him even while he is five, though when she resurrects into the real world, she clearly feels conflicted about this. She lets Jack’s hair grow straight down his back and tells him he is Sampson, but when he goes into the real world he picks up on the constant sex-shaming of being called a girl and asks to have his hair cut. Ma saves some of the long locks and wears them as a bracelet, but she is clearly conflicted by the physical change in Jack. Ma vehemently claims that Jack is “only hers” and not Old Nick’s, when asked by interviewers or when defending Jack’s existence to her father, but in the real world it is clearly harder to ignore who made Jack with her. In Room, Ma and Jack live naked and in poorly fitted and stained clothes—they cuddle, Jack kisses his favorite breast (the left one), and lives without shame. Shame comes in the real world, with other eyes on them.
In many ways Room is a womb, and there is nothing to be judged on—nudity, closeness, and the absolute bond of mother and child. When they are born again into the world with other people, both Ma and Jack develop a sense of shame about their behaviors. Ma has to explain to others that Jack still breastfeeds as they jump to conclusions that her contact with him (and his with hers) is inappropriate. I don’t know how I feel about attachment parenting, and I don’t know if Donoghue was making a self-conscious reference to attachment parenting, but she certainly has views about being allowed to choose (shame-free!) how to raise your child (see an editorial here). Ma uses a butchered version of religion to raise Jack with a sense of hope, but doesn’t seem interested in religion at all when released into the free world again. The same can be said for art, singing, and exercise—all of the things she cherished with Jack in Room become secondary to fitting back in. I imagine that such a thing would be stressful, but I was disturbed at what remained the same for Jack.
Jack had TV in Room, and TV when he was out of Room—Dora The Explorer was one of the only constants he had to transition with (to be fair, so was the book Dylan the Digger). The presence of TV in a place of confinement like Room baffles me—is it that much of a sedative? That even a kidnapper trying to avoid notice provides a TV for his sex slave?
Ma has classic art from oatmeal boxes on the walls of Room, she also makes an Egg Snake with Jack, and they sing and do track together around the small space; when they get out of Room, Ma has a mental breakdown and tries to commit suicide. Even during the events that lead to their escape, Ma is risking Jack’s life and her own in a desperate attempt to get them out of Room—she is gambling with the most precious thing she has left in the hope that something good will come of it. The last attempt to escape left her with a permanently damaged wrist and constant pain—and she sends her five-year-old out into the world (that he never knew existed) hoping he can save them both. This is where Ma veers away from being a strong woman and instead caves. Is this realism? Is it neglectful? Is realism helpful in this narrative? Or hurtful?
Ma is a microcosm of motherhood in America, and also of the young female condition. Even in horrible circumstances she finds strength, but when overwhelmed with conflicting opinions about what she should do, she crumbles. Donoghue’s editorial goes into how bombarded mothers are by companies, friends, co-workers, magazines, OBGYNs… the list goes on and on. Why the onslaught? Why isn’t there a trust for motherhood the way there was in a time BEFORE the corporate fixation on childrearing? Ma finds herself ALWAYS confined, even outside of Room. She is struggling with how to teach Jack how to avoid it, but I got the sick sense as a reader that Jack was bound to escape because he was a boy. That’s why the girl-baby died at birth.
The book is wildly cathartic—by the end you have gone through such an emotional journey that you feel restored and brought back to neutral. The book reads smoothly and you wind up buzzing through it, although I found the sections in Room the most compelling; when they are in the real world I was less compelled to know what was going to happen. The magic of Room—the oddly-bright, happy world of Room (in Jack’s eyes) is a comfortable place—one Jack misses (and one I will miss too). I look forward to seeing if Donoghue has any other similarly unique narratives out there… I saw Astray on my boyfriend’s bedside table and may have to sneak it onto my side.
Emma Donoghue is Irish-born and living in Canada with her partner and their two children. She was inspired by the Fritzl case to write Room and has a plethora of award winning fiction, including Frog Music, Slammerkin, and Astray. She has won recognition for lesbian fiction (particularly for Stir Fry and Hood), and was also short-listed for the Man Booker Award.