ROOM by Emma Donoghue

Published in the US by Little Brown, Sep. 2010
Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

ROOM is a novel that I would not normally have picked up.  Prior to Wednesday, I had no plans to read it.  I generally don’t read books about children or animals.  But earlier this week Emma Donoghue came to the bookstore where I work and I ended up coming home with a signed copy of ROOM.  Donoghue was a delight to meet.  She’s warm, funny, and completely unpretentious.

I knew the book was long-listed and then short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize, which I think is fabulous, but being up for or winning an award is not enough to propel me to read a particular book.  To be honest, I thought the premise of the book sounded a bit hokey and sensationalistic if not opportunistic.  I stand corrected.  It was nothing like I thought it would be.

Donoghue’s inspiration for the book was the Elizabeth Fritzl case in Austria that broke in April 2008.  For 24 years Elizabeth Fritzl’s father held her prisoner in a secret part of the family home’s basement.  He physically and sexually assaulted her which resulted in seven children and one miscarriage.  Donoghue finished writing ROOM prior to the August 2009 discovery that Jaycee Lee Dugard, who had been kidnapped 18 years ago, had been held captive and sexually assaulted by Phillip Garrido and his wife Nancy Garrido in a tent behind their California home.  She had two children while in captivity.

Donoghue, the mother of two small children, wondered what it would be like to be a child who’d spent his entire life in one small room.  This inspiration and her enthusiastic discussion about her writing is what propelled me to read the book.  Her lively reading also hooked me (she read the birthday cake scene).  Donoghue is originally from Ireland and now lives in Canada.  So, due to her engaging reading from her book, while I was reading the book the voice I had in my head for the narrator sounded like Donoghue–a mature Irish woman sounding like a five year old boy.  It worked for me!

ROOM is about about five-year-old Jack who is born into a room where his mother has been held captive for seven years by a man named Old Nick.  The room is all Jack knows, he’s never been outside or even seen the outside through a window.  Other than his Ma and Old Nick, who he’s heard more than actually seen, Jack doesn’t even know other people exist.  Five-year-old Jack is the narrator of the book.

Donoghue does such a brilliant job describing the world of Jack through his five-year-old eyes.  You also get an idea of what his Ma’s life was like prior to Jack’s arrival and how she’s changed since.  The life that she creates for Jack is one of structure and play.  It’s almost like a fantasy childhood–what small child doesn’t want his mom’s attention to be on himself practically every waking moment?  This young woman whose name we never learn isn’t portrayed as a victim.  After reading thrillers about women who are terrorized and murdered by serial killers, it was fascinating to read a book about such a horrific situation from a radically different perspective.

If you plan on reading ROOM, do yourself a favor and don’t read any reviews that contain spoilers. The book is a thrilling read.  Although the novel technically has five chapters, in my mind it has three parts.  The first part is getting used to the flow of Jack’s speech, getting to know him and his Ma and the room.  The second and third parts of the book . . . well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself.  If you plan to get it from the library, there may be a waiting list as it’s now in its first week on The New York Times bestseller list.

As Anita Shreve wrote in a blurb on the back of the book, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read.

I plan to read more of Emma Donoghue’s novels, starting with Slammerkin which has been on my to-be-read list for sometime now.  It was recommended to me because I love Sarah Waters’s Victorian novels.

For a complete list of Donoghue’s writings, visit her website here.

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