by Emma Donoghue.
Picador, 321 pp., £12.99, July 2010, 978 0 330 51901 4
Show More
Show More

All fictions are closed worlds, smaller than our own, and so it is not surprising that novelists are often drawn to represent very small worlds – boarding houses, hotels, a plague-sealed town, a single day in a prison, a bare room. These reduced spaces intensify the fictionality that made them: they are as bound as a book. Depending on the intensity of the reduction, plot slows down to an agonising verisimilitude, because the writer needs both to entrap the reader and to persuade the reader that this entrapment is abnormally normal. Thus Ivan Denisovich has an ordinary day in his camp; Hamm and Clov bicker; the father and son in the post-apocalyptic landscape of The Road drink Coke, pitch their tent and cook dinner; the clone-donors in Never Let Me Go squabble over a stolen geometry set. All of these texts belong, really, to prison literature, in which the smallest detail – a breadcrumb, a passing bird, a drop of rainwater – is tortured, from desperation, into a swollen effigy, many times its normal size.

Abnormal normality is the operating principle of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, which is a kind of prison-lit lite. Based on the Josef Fritzl case, it is narrated by Jack, a five-year-old American, whose mother was abducted at the age of 19 and imprisoned in a single room measuring 121 square feet. She is now 26. The boy’s mother is regularly visited by her abductor, though only at night; Jack, the rapist’s child, was born in this room, and has known no other life. The nameless abductor, whom Jack calls Old Nick, provides food, clothes, toys, electricity and air conditioning. Room follows the outlines of the Austrian case quite closely. One of the rescued Austrian children was Jack’s age – five-year-old Felix Fritzl. As Josef Fritzl did, Jack’s father cuts off power to the room as punishment. As in the Fritzl story, a child’s sickness is the lever that opens the chest of horrors: in Donoghue’s version, Jack fakes an illness and he and his mother stage his death in order to get his body removed from the room; after being wrapped in a rug, he escapes, and gets the police to rescue his mother. Outside their prison, Jack and his mother struggle with the glare of ordinary reality; like the deprived Fritzl children, Jack flinches from bright sunlight, panics at banal challenges, and needs therapeutic help with daily life.

Life inside his prison seems quite normal to Jack, and he happily tells us all about it:

We do Bowling with Bouncy Ball and Wordy Ball, and knock down vitamin bottles that we put different heads on when I was four, like Dragon and Alien and Princess and Crocodile, I win the most. I practice my adding and subtracting and sequences and multiplying and dividing and writing down the biggest numbers there are. Ma sews me two new puppets out of little socks from when I was a baby, they’ve got smiles of stitches and all different button eyes.

Since Jack’s known world is limited and unique, he presumes a reality of naive singularities: he calls his space Room, because he knows only this room, and has named other objects in the same way – Sink, Wardrobe, Door, Toilet, Blanket. He knows about the Outside, because he watches television. Donoghue pursues the logic of this cheerful deprivation with some acuteness and wit. When Jack sees someone in an advert swallowing the same kind of painkiller his mother takes (pills provided by Old Nick), he exclaims that the man on the TV has taken Ma’s pills. His mother tries to explain that they are not the same pills, that there are lots of them in the world, to which Jack poses the perfectly reasonable question: ‘Where?’ Her subsequent lesson, that ‘what we see on TV’ is ‘pictures of real things’, is met with astonished scepticism. Jack thinks of television as an entirely fictional ‘planet’: ‘The planet’s changed to a game of football.’ He refuses to accept that his Mother was ever ‘in the Outside’, and doesn’t really believe her when she tells him that she too has a mother: ‘Why she’s pretending like this, is it a game I don’t know?’ He knows about ‘Baby Jesus’ but is sure that he belongs to TV, like Dora the Explorer.

Life with Ma is happily claustrophobic, and one of the deliberate ironies of Donoghue’s novel is that Jack has his life set up pretty much as every child would want it: a Winnicottian utopia, awash with lovingly retained transitional objects, in which Mummy has never had to teach her little boy the art of disappointment. Ma still breastfeeds Jack, whenever he wants it. He has never had a haircut. Old Nick is a mysterious monster, of course, but his nocturnal habits render him almost fictional to the child, and besides, children need to have bogeymen. Only Ma has reality for Jack, Ma is the source and ground of all reality. Donoghue, who dedicated the novel to her two young children, has perhaps given unconscious expression to that mingling of terror and blissful isolation felt by young parents, as they stumble into an awareness of the massive dependency they have given birth to. This Platonic cave, the novel suggests, is where small children live, and it is how they naturally construct their first world; they leave it, perhaps unwillingly, only through the alienating gate of adult education and correction.

This seems hard to argue with. It is the principle that undergirds the venerable, sweet, suffocating picture book Goodnight Moon (‘Goodnight room … Goodnight Moon … Goodnight light and the red balloon’), to which Donoghue clearly alludes. Most parents have heard their young children ask questions along the lines of ‘Is France in Boston?’ So Jack is an intensified (and, of course, damaged) version of all of us, which is why the novel’s first hundred pages or so are greatly involved with the novelistic establishment of his jolly banality. The chief problem with this irony of abnormal normality is its enacted platitudinousness. In order for us to savour Jack’s banality, we have to experience a lot of it, and many pages in this book run along a very flat pavement:

While Bath is running, Ma gets Labyrinth and Fort down from on top of Wardrobe. We’ve been making Labyrinth since I was two, she’s all toilet roll insides taped together in tunnels that twist lots of ways. Bouncy Ball loves to get lost in Labyrinth and hide, I have to call out to him and shake her and turn her sideways and upside down before he rolls out, whew. Then I send other things into Labyrinth like a peanut and a broken bit of Blue Crayon and a short spaghetti not cooked … Toothbrush wants a turn but I tell him sorry, he’s too long. He jumps in Fort instead to guard a tower. Fort’s made of can and vitamin bottles, we build him bigger every time we have an empty. Fort can see all ways, he squirts out boiling oil at the enemies, they don’t know about his secret knife-slits, ha ha. I’d like to bring him into Bath to be an island but Ma says the water would make his tape unsticky.

This is the prison literature principle, of reduction and rallentando: Jack, with his toilet rolls, might as well be slowly examining a stone or a breadcrumb. But unfortunately Jack is a child, and unfortunately Jack narrates the novel, and unfortunately Jack is a pretty cute kid, which means that the book itself is never far from cuteness – more Adrian Mole than Ivan Denisovich – which may explain the endorsements of Room provided by sentimental popular novelists like Anita Shreve and Audrey Niffenegger. Where is Mark Haddon’s imprimatur? And of course, a novel narrated by a five-year-old kid stretches to breaking point the already uneasy tension in first-person narration between the supposed orality of the recitation and its actual writtenness. There are times when Donoghue rather wonderfully catches the sound – the voice – of a young child’s bemusement at adult ways: ‘She goes to Sink and washes her face, I don’t know why because it wasn’t dirty but maybe there were germs.’ But the contract with the reader is necessarily so fragile that it is easily broken. A line like ‘I don’t like when Ma does sarcasm,’ a few pages later, jolts us out of the five-year-old’s stylistic universe. Later in the book, the reader has to entertain absurdities, as when Jack is watching a TV news report about his escape and simultaneously reproducing the reporter’s words for us:

I jump up and go right to the screen. There’s a me like in Mirror only I’m tiny. Words sliding underneath LOCAL NEWS AS IT HAPPENS. A she person is talking but I can’t see: ‘… bachelor loner converted the garden shed into an impregnable 21st-century dungeon. The despot’s victims have an eerie pallor and appear to be in a borderline catatonic state after the long nightmare of their incarceration.’

So a female reporter is a ‘she person’ to the little boy, yet a word like ‘impregnable’ is perfectly spelled, and apparently understood.

Donoghue’s novel naturally divides into two: Room and the world, before and after, imprisonment and escape, Inside and Outside. The two halves of the novel symmetrically invert their ironies: inside his room, reality is completely normal to the child, but strange to us; outside his room, once he has escaped, reality is completely normal to us, but strange to the child. In the first case, our alienation from banality is of interest; in the second case, the child’s alienation from banality is of interest. The book is really an exercise in sweet-natured defamiliarisation. Again, there are moments when Donoghue captures with real wit and aptness this juvenile ostranenie. Jack must learn to wear shoes, after five years without them; they are heavy on his feet. He has never had a cold before, and soon develops one. But if you have never had a cold, then you know nothing about how long it lasts: ‘After our nap my cold’s still not fixed yet.’ At the clinic where Jack and his mother stay after their rescue, the little boy must learn, from the ground up, as it were, the meaning of the most ordinary phrases. The clinic’s director, Dr Clay, asks the boy to ‘Gimme five?’ To which Jack responds, in his head: ‘I’m not going to give him my fingers, I need them for me.’ When Dr Clay speaks angrily about what Old Nick has done, Jack is surprised: ‘I didn’t think Dr Clay even knows him, I thought we were the only ones.’

Reality was singular to Jack, but must now be lived in the plural: his grandmother explains to him that every town has a playground. ‘Lots of the world seems to be a repeat,’ Jack thinks. Disillusionment rather than delight awaits the boy. His grandmother takes him to the sea, but Jack is scared, and will not go in: ‘The sea never stops growling and it’s too big, we’re not meant to be here.’ This is not the only moment when the example of The Road can be felt: Jack and his mother indeed resemble the nameless son and father in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, in which the father must construct for his son the lost reality he has never known, and in which an apex of pathos is reached when father and child finally reach the sea, only to find it a vast bowl of ashy sludge.

But unlike in The Road, intensity is here exchanged for sweetness of tone, which is always sugaring the mixture, and taking away the story’s edge. After a while, Jack’s alienation from the new world outside his Room becomes repetitive, and too easy; one has the unpleasant sense that the exercise in defamiliarisation is the canny raison d’être of the novel rather than its human fruit, a trick that could be endlessly replicated. ‘Also Grandma gave me five keys on a key ring that say POZZO’S HOUSE OF PIZZA, I wonder how a house is made of pizza, wouldn’t it flop?’ Ma tries to kill herself, but survives, and Jack goes to live with his Grandma. When she gives him the news that Ma has pulled through, she says: ‘That was Dr Clay, your ma is stable. That sounds good, doesn’t it?’ To which Jack confidingly responds: ‘It sounds like horses,’ a gag Donoghue should have resisted. Eventually, Jack is called on by his author to offer a little wisdom about this new world he finds himself in. He says exactly what one expected, and feared, he would say; that is, his preachment is taken from the scriptures of Forrest Gump:

In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time. Even Grandma often says that, but she and Steppa don’t have jobs, so I don’t know how persons with jobs do the jobs and all the living as well. 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.

  Also everywhere I’m looking at kids, adults mostly don’t seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don’t want to actually play with them, they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there’s a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn’t even hear.

This is not the only way in which Room becomes didactic. We soon discover that, apart from the medical staff charged with Jack and Ma’s treatment, the world is full of adults who are conveniently clueless about how to read Jack’s normal abnormality. His grandmother wonders aloud about how the boy managed to spend his first five years without Lego: ‘Growing up without Lego … I literally can’t imagine it.’ A member of her book club suggests that maybe his isolation was quite restful: ‘I spent a week in a monastery in Scotland once … it was so peaceful.’ A TV interviewer tells Ma that ‘Every day he needed a wider world, and the only one you could give him got narrower. You must have been tortured by the memory of everything Jack didn’t even know to want. Friends, school, grass, swimming, rides at the fair.’ This useful obtuseness is flourished in order to drive home the novel’s argument that common sense must be inverted – that, in fact, an apparently narrow world may be, to the child, as wide as the universe. Dr Clay produces a line of Emily Dickinson that – oh dear – could have been the novel’s epigraph: ‘The Soul selects her own Society – Then – shuts the Door’. Why, she even capitalises her nouns, like Jack!

But the universality of this vision is problematic. On the one hand, Jack loses his uniqueness, and becomes not just every child, but – in Dickinson’s sense – every Soul, a vessel bearing a wide and unarguable truth about the private construction of reality. On the other hand, if Jack is like every child, then the novel does not need the horror of his particularity, and Donoghue’s theft from the 2008 newspapers begins to seem exploitative and a little cheap. Indeed, there are times when Room manages the difficult art of being at once banal and sensational: its normality is too normal, its abnormality too abnormal.

Does anyone really imagine that Jack’s inner life, with his cracks about Pizza Houses and horse stables and high-fives, is anything like five-year-old Felix Fritzl’s? The real victim’s imaginings and anxieties must have been abysmal, in the original sense (unimaginable, bottomless), and the novel’s sure-footed appropriation of this unknowability seems offensive precisely in its sure-footedness. Jack’s ordinariness is part of his essential cheerfulness in the first part of the novel: we are supposed to feel that the escape from Room is a fall into the incomprehensibly adult world, even a loss, a kind of exaggerated and necessarily garish rite of corruption. But that basic cheerfulness, and that obligingly charming voice, lend the book an inappropriate lightness. Though Donoghue, at the end, keeps open the question of whether Jack will ever really adapt to Outside, his cute confidings carry a suggestion that things will probably work out. And the book’s final scene, in which mother and son revisit Room (now a police crime scene) to say a decisive farewell, reeks of ‘closure’: ‘“Goodbye, Room.” I wave up at Skylight. “Say goodbye,” I tell Ma. “Goodbye, Room.”’ The phrasing of the novel’s last sentences nuzzles up to the language of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, so that what was probably intended as sombre by Donoghue sounds velvet-lined and cosy. Dr Clay’s therapy may not yet have worked, but Donoghue’s therapy seems on the verge of success: where Room was, let there be Redemption.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences