This is my review for Room by Emma Donoghue, which was loosely inspired by the Fritzl case. If you were living under a rock when the Fritzl case made the headlines in 2008 after Elisabeth Fritzl escaped her father’s dungeon, read this article from The Guardian which explains everything from the sordid beginnings.
Room is about a five-year-old boy called Jack who lives with his Ma. Ma and Jack live in a single room, and they can’t get out. The story is told by Jack, who was born in Room, knows nothing of the world outside it, and can only re-iterate conversations between Old Nick (Ma’s kidnapper) and Ma without fully understanding the significance or nuances of the relationship between kidnapper and victim.
“The newspaper reports of Felix Fritzl [Elisabeth’s son], aged five, emerging into a world he didn’t know about, put the idea into my head. That notion of the wide-eyed child emerging into the world like a Martian coming to Earth: it seized me.”
[from The Guardian]
Room would be a very different novel if it was told through Ma’s perspective. Just imagine: a young woman, captured, imprisoned and raped over seven years. The story, through her eyes, would be coloured by an understanding that this is wrong; it would be about getting her fight or flight responses under control, about staying sane and willing to live enough to find an escape. That story would be one we’ve seen before – the psychological thriller where the author gets us into the mind of both victim and captor, and spins a story where their psyches may be pitted against each other.
Room is different. Jack’s voice says one thing loud and clear – sometimes we can find good things even in the most terrible of circumstances. The world Jack knows in Room is not one marred by being imprisoned. Room is his home, where he sees the people in TV which he thinks do not exist for real – that is until Ma starts to let him in on the truth she’s been hiding from him. It becomes clear early on that this novel isn’t about overcoming an abduction. The room is more or less a metaphor for the isolation felt by parents, especially single parents, when raising a child – and Old Nick is an agent for the outside influences that threaten the stability of the family unit.
Room focuses on how much psychological energy a mother puts into ensuring her child has the very best start in life, no matter how bad her situation is. It is about the struggles of a parent for their child, and how that struggle can still be what a parent loves more than anything.
Using Jack as narrator does mean that there are certain aspects of the story that we’re missing entirely as readers. Jack’s childlike voice is (more often than not) believable as he often gets distracted, and has no real concept of rape or imprisonment. This also means that Jack can’t fill us in on why Old Nick kidnapped Ma, or how Ma’s communication with Old Nick altered over the years into what sounds almost like two acquaintances at times. The simplicity in Jack’s narration can often get repetitive, and it can be frustrating at times to remind yourself that this is because he’s five-years-old. So if you’re looking for a novel that will satiate a thirst for a full-on psychological thriller, you won’t really find it here.
Nonetheless, I do think that a narration from Ma’s perspective would have diluted the eerie realisation that Jack is happy with Room. The child believes the entire world is a small place consisting of just three people. He believes that birds, trees, flowers are only things you see in the TV but can never touch. Perhaps worst of all, he believes that quietly hiding in Wardrobe when Old Nick comes to Bed with Ma is just what he is supposed to do when he hears those beeps at the door. Reading that Jack is happy with and cannot understand the depravity imposed on him and his Ma in the room, makes the novel all the more poignant.
Room comes at the thriller genre from an unexpected angle. You won’t get all your questions answered, and you might not get all the feels. Donoghue does, however, make up for that by focusing on a child’s first experiences of family life, and showing a mother’s best attempts to keep her child shielded from her abuse. More than wrongful imprisonment over several years, I find that the morbid setting in Room has allowed Donoghue to deal with and show parenthood for what it is when all other distractions have been stripped away.
A film based on the book will be released later this year. From the trailer, I honestly think we’re going to get a slightly different aspect of the story since we’ll be looking on as third parties and not through Jack’s gaze. See for yourselves!