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TBTS Reviews: Room

October 21, 2010

Today I’m five.  I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.  Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero.

So begins Room, the new novel by Emma Donoghue, and it isn’t long before you know something isn’t right.  Jack, the child narrator, lives in Room with his Ma.  He sleeps in Wardrobe, eats with Meltedy Spoon, plays on Rug.  He can see God’s Face through Skylight every day.  He was born in Room and has never been outside it because outside there is only Outer Space.  Sometimes, Old Nick comes from Outer Space to bring Ma and Jack food and clothes and Sundaytreat.  When he’s there Ma tells Jack to get in Wardrobe and hide from Old Nick.  Jack lays in Wardrobe under Ma’s dresses and pretends to be asleep.  He counts the squeaks until Bed stops moving.

Room is a lot of things.  I won’t spend a lot of time on the plot; surprise is so essential I would advise you to avoid even reading the dust jacket.  It’s a child’s eye view of both the beauty of a mother’s love and of a very human kind of Hell.  It’s a one-sitting kind of book for the best possible reason: when you start it, you need to know what happens next.  It’s also a rare beauty of a book, an open-hearted wonder, a marvel of storytelling.

What Room isn’t is nearly as remarkable.  It isn’t hokey in the least, a difficult feat for any story featuring a small child as narrator.  When I began Room I was on guard against emotional manipulation and sentimentality.  As it went on I dropped my guard and let myself be caught up in the story.  It isn’t exploitative – without giving anything away, allow me to say what has happened to Ma is the stuff of both nightmares and terrible movies, but Donoghue avoids that ripped-from-the-headlines feeling.  Instead, it’s a deeply subtle book.  It speaks softly where it could shout, and it’s a greater book for it.

But it’s Jack who makes the book work, Jack whose voice compels you to keep going, whose innocence makes you, the reader, dread what could come next.  You can feel him outgrowing his tightly circumscribed world – the bed is Bed, for example, because there’s only one bed in his universe, so it might as well have a proper name.  All things considered, Jack is a well-adjusted kid for one reason only, namely, his mother’s fierce love.  There’s no question on which side of the nature/nurture debate Donoghue stands.

Room is a uniquely satisfying book.  The ending is one of the most fulfilling I’ve ever read; it finishes on just the perfect note to make the story stay with you for days afterward.  This one is not to be missed.

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