Review: A ‘Room’ with a view – a bleak one
December 23, 2010
All Ma wants is to get out of Room. Ma, as Emma Donoghue slowly, tantalizingly, skillfully reveals in her novel “Room,” has been held captive in dingy square quarters for several years. Her meager needs are stingily provided for by the man she calls “Old Nick,” the sociopath who tricked her, kidnapped her, locked her away in Room, and shows up regularly to rape her.
Ma’s one saving grace is Jack. Ma does everything possible to divorce herself from the reality that Jack is the biological product of Old Nick’s raping her. Nick is not permitted even to lay eyes on the boy, who is stashed away in Wardrobe during Nick’s visits; it is the one hold Ma has over her captor. She is thus able to embrace her son totally, and her motherly devotion affords some measure of sanity. She and Jack read, make up games, watch TV, establish a routine.
It is a world of their own they have created, and in a way it suffices. The two have an immense bond. Jack is healthy and, thanks to the constant attention from his mother, he is, in a limited scope, smart.
But Jack, who is celebrating his fifth birthday at the story’s outset, and from whose perspective the story unfolds, doesn’t know about the outside world. It is an implausible aspect of the novel, though handled well by Donoghue: Jack has been tricked by Ma into believing that Room is the extent of the universe. There are things that exist on TV – rain, grass, “Dora the Explorer” – and there are things that are real – Bed, Remote, the poster of Picasso’s “Guernica,” the green beans that Jack can’t stand. “What would I have told him?” Ma asks later on, defending her decision to keep Jack ignorant of the outside world.
Ma and Jack do escape from Room; the first half of the novel is part a creation of the world of Room, and part horror-thriller in which Ma and Jack plan and execute (again, implausibly but effectively enough) their breakout.
Once Donoghue has freed Ma and Jack, we realize that the first half of the story was largely a set-up. Donoghue’s ultimate aim, it seems, was not to tell a horror story, but to write a bigger critique of society. Make that a criticism. In the real world, Ma and Jack discover that Old Nick wasn’t the only monster out there, just an especially evil one. Outside of Room, there is selfishness, impatience and materialism, malls and germs, and, perhaps most cruel, the media, waiting to pounce and exploit.
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Ma dismisses as ridiculous the notion that life was better in Room than outside, and thankfully, Donoghue never tries to persuade the reader otherwise. But “Room” does raise some aspects of this idea that are worth considering: How far do we go to protect our children from corrupting influences? Without having to confine ourselves to a room that is 11-feet square, would we be better off if the worlds we created for ourselves were smaller, simpler and more tightly controlled? Couldn’t we all use a bigger sense of innocence?
I was put aback, though, by the sharpness of Donoghue’s view of the outside world. Room is horrific; but Real is pretty inhospitable too. We can understand that the gawking media and strangers will be terribly insensitive to Ma and Jack’s adjustment to the world. But their close relatives? Ma’s father can’t bring himself to embrace Jack – half of his genetic material came from Old Nick. Ma’s mother is intolerant and self-centered. The doctors treating Ma and Jack are portrayed the most generously, but even they can be awkward and insufficiently attentive.
Donoghue does a first-rate job of storytelling, under tough circumstances – the universe she has set up for herself as a novelist is nearly as fraught as the one her protagonists face. The final chapter is pricelessly clever and poignant.
And Donoghue builds plenty of empathy for Ma and Jack. It’s the rest of humanity that gets a bleak, blunt portrayal.
Aspen readers will have a chance to probe Donoghue’s mind. She is scheduled to appear in an Aspen Writers’ Foundation Winter Words event on Feb. 23, at The Little Nell.