Review: ‘Room’

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  • This is from my enormous backlog of book reviews, most of which were written between 2010 and 2012. Posting this one because, looking back, I found my intense reaction to this book funny. You can see the spit fly. It’s obviously been a while since I finished this book, but I’m still happy to discuss it with anyone else who may’ve read it. (Note: Spoilers abound.)

Room is a Booker-short-listed novel by Irish writer, Emma Donoghue. The ultimate book club book, it was always destined to be a conversational powder keg. This book divides people. The fact that it was recognised by a major literary prize only exacerbates this. Its concept – a woman kept as a sex slave in an underground ‘room’ – is strong enough to carry you through it, irrespective of whether you like the voice, the writing, or the eventual shape of the narrative.

With all this in mind, here’s one opinionated guy’s take on it:

I loved Room. Then I hated it. It’s a heartbreaker: not because of the sentiment or the way events unfolds, but because it’s so torturously uneven. This book drew me in with a powerful beginning, forced me to invest my emotions, then – almost methodically – undid all its hard work through severe lapses in logic. It’s almost deceptive the way it hooks you on its enormous premise and teases with all that potential. Had it been a stinker all the way through, I’ve no doubt it wouldn’t elicit such strong reactions from its audience. I will probably always remember Room, for its good points, and its bad ones.

I’ve got a lot to say about this, so get comfortable.

The novel is divided cleanly into two halves – Room and Post-Room. As I was reading the first half, I thought about how much I was enjoying it, and how that enjoyment was likely to translate into a four or five star review. Had it been novella-lengthed and concluded at the close of the first section, I’ve no doubt this would’ve been a winner. Not to be.

Room’s greatest shortcoming is its lackluster second half. There’ll be major plot spoilers from hereon out (frankly, this book is impossible to review without spoiling certain revelations).

Jack and ‘Ma’ live in isolated captivity. Ma is being held as a sex slave by her captor, a man referred to as Old Nick. Jack is the five-year-old protagonist and narrator. Old Nick is Jack’s father, though a deal with Ma has him staying out of the child’s life completely. Jack’s life experience is limited to everything he’s seen in captivity: his whole world is Room. Ma has fed him a careful series of lies in order to shelter him from the truth of their situation. As far as Jack’s aware, he and Ma are the only humans in existence; Old Nick is a peculiar phenomenon akin to nightfall, or the weather; and the people and places on TV are all make-believe. The necessity of Ma’s lie is clear enough, but it ends up causing huge developmental problems for Jack down the line – notably in the second half, when his entire world unravels into a confusing, dreary mess.

In Room’s first half, we’re voyeurs looking in on a horrible but compelling situation. Survival isn’t guaranteed. The mood is underscored by the constant threat of a visit from Old Nick. The artificial world Ma creates for Jack is beautiful, as are the artificial laws which govern it. Mother and child play, learn and exercise together. Jack thrives in Room. He loves the structure and security. He also shows an unhealthy (though understandable) dependence on his mother, which creates a sense of unease.

Because Room is such a small microcosm of the world, it’s easy for Jack to convincingly function as the narrator. We grasp more about their situation than he can, which enables us to interpret the events on multiple levels. But this POV has many limitations, and Room stretches them to breaking point before the first half’s conclusion.

The first half’s final act is a laughably implausible escape attempt that, despite insurmountable risks, goes off without a hitch. It is preceded by some terrible artificial tension: Old Nick loses his job and so, therefore, Ma assumes that their days are numbered. It’s a contrived way to suggest time is of the essence and this transparency makes it hard for us to buy into Ma’s slapdash escape plan.

By acting like a screaming, emotional banshee, Ma forces, or tricks, Old Nick into carrying their supposedly dead son out in a rolled-up carpet. Nick is supposed to be the heartless, cunning antagonist, yet he blindly trusts and submits to Ma’s whims. Since this is the novel’s zenith of tension, it was unforgivably stupid.

Jack’s sudden heroism was also hard to believe. This is a boy who has been completely sheltered from reality and is suddenly forced to step up and enter the real world. This should’ve been a disaster waiting to happen, but, for the most part, Jack remains in complete control of his fears. The police are notified and end up locating Room in next to no time, despite Jack’s vague and befuddled clues. It’s all a bit ridiculous, and it perfectly ushers us into the underwhelming second half.

The second half is all about Jack and Ma’s respective integration and re-integration into the outside world. We hit the ground running and the logical inconsistencies quickly pile up. Ma reunites with her family, whom all believed her long dead. Their reactions to Ma and Jack left me flabbergasted. I didn’t get the sense that they were genuinely grateful to have their daughter back; they actually had the nerve to argue with her over some trivial things. Their lack of understanding confounded me (for example: the grandma figure strikes Jack for being curious about genitalia, something he is obviously too innocent to understand).

It’s not just Ma’s extended family that lack patience and sensitivity; the media and medical staff are the same. Certainly Jack and Ma’s situation is peculiar. I’m sure there was no protocol to follow, but I couldn’t believe that everyone who comes into contact Jack and Ma lacks basic human empathy. First, everyone in the real world treats them as an amusing novelty. Then, they expect them to progress and adjust in next to no time. It’s the attitudes from those around her that force Ma’s back against the wall. She lashes out in defence time and time again. It’s unpleasant to read and it’s not all that interesting because, well, I couldn’t suspend disbelief.

In my world – a world governed by the laws of plausibility – Jack and Ma would have been taken somewhere else, somewhere where they’d be given around the clock, compassionate care and medical attention. Ma would not resist help every step of the way (she’s been through a lot, yes, but she’s an intelligent woman who knows accepting it would be the best thing for her son), nor would she be in some crazy race to get rehabilitated and resume her life (she grows impatient with Jack’s struggle to adapt, even though this is a direct result of her lies).

All of the complications in the latter half are contrived and exist to wring tension from where tension is not. The fallout from living in Room is genuinely distressing. It was hard to read some of Ma and Jack’s trials, but, because all logic had flown the coop, my head and heart were no longer aligned and I couldn’t emotionally invest the way I was supposed to.

A quick detour for a moment. I really must address something that’s been bothering me: Ma’s family, the public, and some real world book reviewers seem to have this huge problem with the way Ma is always breastfeeding Jack (despite him having well surpassed the socially acceptable age). Regarding this, I will leap to the book’s defence: in the scheme of things to find fault with, this is a non-issue. There isn’t – and never was – anything perverse about Ma’s breastfeeding. It was a pragmatic practice with two functions: one, it brought Ma and Jack together and strengthened the maternal bond (remember, they are all each other has for five years); and two, Ma was trying desperately to give Jack every ounce of nutrition she could (why would she let perfectly good, nutritionally-rich breast milk go to waste in an environment where real food is not always a given? She wouldn’t – not for the sake of some inapplicable social etiquette). The book is many things, but I can’t understand the intense negative response to this minor aspect.

Anyway, the more I reflect on the broken logic of the second half, the more these issues bleed into the first. I know why Ma acted the way she did – towards Jack and Old Nick – but the more I think about it, the more I realise that things could’ve gone a lot better for everyone had she acted differently.

For example: Ma shows perpetual hostility towards her captor, Old Nick. She regularly screams and antagonises him, even though he’s essentially their only means to getting food and home comforts. This bothered me. Why would anyone rock the boat in a situation where there are no other options? I’m not sympathising with Old Nick, but – besides him being deranged enough to hold a hostage – he does show them a degree of compassion. Why not nurture and exploit this? Why not try to get along? Yes, the idea is repulsive, but people adapt. Seven years with his company and I’m sure the ‘threat’ of Old Nick would probably subside (he is not shown to be unwarrantedly violent; his sexual advances are the only unprompted incidents that transpire). The way I see it, there is no foreseeable way to change the situation, so why not make the best of it?

Well, I know why. Because Ma is full of pride. She overvalues her dignity. If I had no one to talk to for two years (and only a young child to talk to for the next five), I’d be desperate for any intellectual or emotional connection I could get. Old Nick can provide that. He seems civil enough, so why not make the best of that situation instead of antagonising him and compromising your only source of food?

You might argue that Old Nick doesn’t deserve Ma’s kindness. No, he doesn’t (I reiterate that I’m not defending him), but the way I see it Ma has always had two options: off herself and put an end to the torture, or do everything in her power to make Room a pleasant, habitable environment. A poor strategist, Ma doesn’t wholly commit to either approach. She has choices – albeit limited ones – and it’s her failure to control what is potentially within her power that causes complications. In a sense, the complications are of her own doing.

Okay, then there’s Jack. Jack’s voice is probably the greatest asset Room has. But it’s also one of its biggest defects (I told you: this book is full of contradictions). I’ve become wary of the child’s POV. It almost never rings true. Had this featured multiple points of views, or an omniscient third person view, Room might’ve been an entirely different experience.

You see, the problem with Jack is that he alternates between being naive and precocious. He comprehends some pretty advanced things for a five year old – his television viewing enables him to soak up knowledge and a degree of culture – yet he still has trouble understanding very basic things.

A part of this is intentional: as I said, Donoghue has employed the idea that Ma has intentionally stunted his mental development, retarding him and substituting fallacies for essential world lessons. This isn’t what I’m talking about, though. I’m talking about the general inconsistencies in his voice: in one breath he’ll use a big word; in another, baby-talk. Where he picked up this baby-talk is anyone’s guess. Ma talks to him like a regular adult and he watches enough TV to absorb basic language and rhythm of speech. It seems the baby-talk is there purely to reinforce Jack’s innocence. Fine, but at least justify it.

These inconsistencies make Jack more a device than a believable child. He seems to understand or struggle with ideas based on whatever suits the narrative at the time. I realise that he’s not a typical five-year-old, but this doesn’t justify his particular indiscretions.

Despite all this, it is genuinely interesting seeing events through Jack’s eyes. The reader must interpret vague hints or subtext to piece together the whole. As in, say, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, this is a great device, one that draws the reader in on an intimate level. But for this particular story, it’s far too limiting. Donoghue would’ve been better off dividing the book into three perspectives: Jack’s, Ma’s and Old Nick’s. So much of the second half fails because it requires Jack to eavesdrop on something he doesn’t and shouldn’t understand.

Before I move on from Jack, I want to first go back to his deliberately enforced developmental issues. Ma’s justification for lying to him was that she didn’t want Jack to have to suffer the same shitty reality she has to. Fine, sure. It works, I guess (suspension of disbelief and all that). But this is a woman who’s had seven years with her own thoughts. Probably she spends days on end fantasising and strategising. With that in mind, how did she not concoct something smarter or safer? Did she not wonder what would happen if she and Jack ever escaped? Did she not foresee that Jack would be crippled by all the lies she’d told him? They aren’t the little white lies we tell our children; they’re serious, reality-crushing deceptions.

Here is an alternate approach she could’ve taken (bear in mind that I came up with this in about thirty seconds, not seven years): don’t lie to Jack. If you think about it, Jack’s not going to miss what he’s never experienced. He might get a little restless and irritable knowing he can’t experience the outside world, but he’ll get over it (in fact, Ma could’ve used his restlessness to motivate an intricate joint escape attempt). Like Ma, Jack can hate his reality all he wants; he still doesn’t have a choice. In my opinion, Ma’s lies aren’t protective, they’re insulting. She ought to give him some credit: children are extremely resilient when it comes to trauma.

If she’d told him the truth all along, it would’ve made: the escape attempt easier, their conversations less laden with traps and logic pitfalls (Ma contradicts herself daily, much to Jack’s confusion), their conversations more stimulating for both of them (no baby-talk and self-censorship), and it would’ve made Jack’s eventual integration into the real world smoother (thus negating most – or at least the worst parts – of the second half).

You could say she couldn’t have Jack be in on everything because he might slip up in front of Old Nick, thus spoiling any ambitious escape plans that they concoct. Sure, maybe. Except that Ma stopped Nick from having anything to do with her son. It seems to me she had an opportunity to shape Jack into a great escape accomplice, instead of a burden. Telling Jack the truth may’ve been difficult, but the benefits would’ve far outweighed the negatives. To be honest, though, I actually really like the idea of Jack being developmentally stunted, but its justification was insultingly weak.

Finishing this thought, I have one last, semi-related gripe: I hated the way Jack reiterated every new idea or contradiction that Ma, or someone from the outside, told him.

Ma: ‘Jack, we’re on fire! We have to jump in the ocean!’

Jack (in his head): But I thought ocean was only in TV?

That’s a stupid example but, in the second half, it happens about twice a page for seventy odd pages. Some of them are legitimate miscommunications, but most are Donoghue artificially reiterating that, yes, Jack has no idea; he is waaaay out of his depth! It’s irritating.

Jack is too precocious to be this foolish. After Ma debunks all the lies she once told him, and after they escape, Jack has no reason to question every single new thing he hears. He should go with it, resign to the fact that his old information is no longer reliable. Instead, every time Jack learns something different, he attempts to match the two pieces of information together, reiterating his confusion to the reader in his cutesy-putesy way. We get it. He doesn’t understand.

I think, by now, you see the limitations to this POV.

So, Old Nick. Old Nick is a character in Room and is approximately two dimensions deep. Because of this, he is not a satisfying antagonist. We never really learn anything about him, but we can conclude that he is one smart cookie. See, he tricked this young girl into letting her guard down so he could kidnap her. Then he installed her in this really intricate dungeon that only someone with a lot going on upstairs could conceive of. Then there’s the fact he manages to get away with it for seven whole years!

With this, we can ascertain that Nick must be a semi-intelligent human being. Why then does he allow Ma, his defenseless prisoner, to call all the shots? Why doesn’t he assert himself and punish her every time she steps out of line? Could it be that he has some sort of conscience? That he is, perhaps, three dimensions deep, and not the previously alluded to two? Maybe. Probably not, though. We’ll never know because Donoghue skirts around the issue, focusing instead on Jack’s silly games.

Instead, Old Nick comes across as less of a monster and more of an aloof creep. He’s captured this woman, right, but he keeps her well-fed and in reasonably humane conditions. She could, as he says, have it a lot worse. I’m not really sure why he does this. He doesn’t talk to her, connect with her, love her. He seems to care about her (by his actions and pseudo-chivalry), but he never tries to foster any deeper connection. He just rapes her a whole lot.

It irks me to no end that Old Nick is written as a cartoonish super villain. There are hints of him having greater depth, but these are never explored. The only dangerous things he does – besides the sex crimes, which would, for all intents and purposes, become part of the routine after awhile; he certainly doesn’t seem to hurt her during – are: he breaks Ma’s arm when she tries to escape (note the fairly rational justification) and he denies them food and heating when Ma fires up and disrespects him (again, see: justification). He never acts violently without provocation, so is he really that much of a threat? (See: my earlier point about how things would’ve been different had Ma tried to get along with him.)

I don’t know why he lets Ma walk all over him. He’s the one in control. His stupidity contradicts what we already know about him and, in turn, undermines the narrative. Why does he allow Ma to have baby Jack? Why does she get to keep him? How would that serve Old Nick’s plan? It’s another expense, another risk. He could’ve: aborted Jack earlier, killed Jack when he was born, taken Jack and given him up for adoption, taken Jack and raised him himself, allowed Ma to keep him but demanded he be involved in his life. Instead, he does the most illogical thing possible, and we never really find out why.

Then there’s that escape he allows to happen. I touched on this earlier, so I won’t get into it again. But basically: why? Ma has tried to escape before and she’s nothing but hostile towards him. She certainly hasn’t earned his trust, so why does he blindly give it to her?

The final disappointing thing about Old Nick is that he is almost immediately apprehended for his crime. For one, I found this a bit hard to swallow, since the police had nearly nothing to go on. For another, it basically killed any tension the second half had going for it. Why couldn’t he have remained at large? Forever, or at least for a while. Then there’d be the underlying threat of an Old Nick reappearance. Ma would then have a reason for all her anxiety. Maybe he could’ve actually reappeared? Maybe they could’ve had a close call? I don’t know. Anything would’ve been better than having things immediately tied up in a neat little bow.

That’s about all the stamina I have, so I’ll summarise my main issues:

  • Principally, I could’ve done without all the haphazard logic.
  • Jack’s voice was inconsistent.
  • The entire second half would’ve worked better if it were contained in a short epilogue (it sort of meanders on, endlessly re-emphasising that it’s hard for Jack and Ma to integrate. We know!). The ethos of the second half could’ve been captured in one small, cutting example (e.g. Jack and Ma struggle with social protocols at, say, the supermarket), but ah well.

All this might sound like a starkly negative deconstruction of the book, but I must praise it for four important things: it had a strong premise; it showed a willingness to explore its issues, or ‘go there’ (though I do wish it’d gone further); it was ambitious (having such a monster idea and then containing it in a child’s POV is pretty daring); and it – well, the first half – was highly readable (for such a big book, it was a real page turner. The first three quarters had me under its thumb, which should bear mentioning).

Room is definitely worthwhile. Despite its flaws, I don’t regret reading it for a second. It’s an experience. I simply mourn for what could’ve been. I don’t feel it’s deserving of the Booker Prize short-listing, but that’s neither here nor there. The fact that it invoked such a passionate response in me means it’s not without merit.

Thank you and goodnight.

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3 thoughts on “Review: ‘Room’

  1. When did the book start to turn? By what page?

    The reason I ask is because there’s a huge emphasis on the first five pages , the first chapter, the first fifty pages. I wonder if this story gave painstaking attention to the beginning with that in mind.

    • I would say I noticed its immense suckage somewhere between a quarter and halfway through. I really enjoyed the first half while reading it, but retroactively it just did not hold up to even the slightest scrutiny. Still, I’ll never forget this one.

      Have you ever come across books like this? (i.e. Books you want to hurdle into oncoming traffic, not because they’re terrible but because they’ve fallen short of their own potential.)

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