Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma DonoghueRoom is inspired by the shocking true-life story of Elizabeth Fritzl, imprisoned by her father Josef in the basement of her family home in Austria for 24 years.  Her escape in 2008 made worldwide headlines and much attention was given to the disturbing facts of the case.

Now, this short introduction may have already convinced you to buy a copy of this novel, or it may have put you off reading the book entirely.  The “misery memoir” often divides readers into two distinct camps.

However, this is not a misery memoir.  It is not Elizabeth Fritzl’s story and is not intended to be.  Emma Donoghue, the author, wanted to write a fictional story from the point of view of a child who has known no life outside of the place in which he was born.  Donoghue was apparently interested in re-imagining the experiences of Elizabeth Fritz’s son, who she gave birth to while still a captive.  He was five years old at the time of their release.  The narrator of this novel, Jack, also five, is very loosely based on this boy’s imagined thoughts and perceptions of the world.

As opposed to dwelling on the terrible details of a kidnapped woman’s ordeal, Jack tells us matter-of-factly what he had for breakfast, how many wall tiles there are in Room, and how many times the bed creaks when “Old Nick” visits his Ma during the night.  All these things are simply facts of life for Jack, but for us as readers, reading between the lines and able to look past his limited knowledge of life, we are shocked and saddened by their story.

Despite the occasional (and to be expected) childish tantrum, Jack is overall content with his world as it is and resists his mother’s attempts to rearrange furniture or to make any changes to their daily routine.  You can’t help but feel admiration for his Ma: despite suffering from episodes of depression and unable to break free from the endless monotony of the passing days, she has raised her son to be a loving, caring and contented child, and does everything in her power to protect him from boredom, illness and their captor.

I found the novel to be an intense but thoughtful imagining of how a child will develop and grow despite never having seen daylight, or the moon, or trees, or another child to play with.  Room, the objects in Room, his Ma and Old Nick are the only things Jack ever sees: as far as he is concerned there is nothing else.  He struggles to grasp the knowledge that what he sees on TV is real.

I admired Donoghue’s handling of a difficult subject matter with taste, dignity and imagination.  Jack’s five-year-old narration rings true and hits the right balance between innocence and heart-breaking insight.  You will probably race through this book, as I did, which only adds to the intensity of the novel’s pace and tone, but I think that’s probably the best way to read it.  Not a holiday read, but one to give you something to think about.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bridget
    May 18, 2012 @ 19:10:12

    Agreed with basically everything in your review. Even a month after reading this (it’ll finally be posted next week on my blog) I’m still not sure how I feel about it–is it okay for me to like this book, given the subject matter? I found the narration slightly irking at times, but it was quite an admirable effort for a grown woman to imagine the thought processes of a five-year-old boy.

    Reply

    • TheBrontëSister
      May 21, 2012 @ 21:11:37

      I know exactly what you mean. I think it’s ok to like a book which is dark and sad. If it speaks to you and makes you feel something, what’s not to like? Plus there is a positive message of survival against the odds hidden in that book, deep down amongst all the sadness. I didn’t feel that way about the narration, actually – it didn’t bother me – or at least with hindsight I don’t remember any niggles like that.

      Have you read “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime?” It’s often compared to “Room” because of the child narrator technique – I have to say that I enjoyed this a lot more than “The Curious Incident”, although reading an autistic child’s thoughts is quite something.

      Reply

      • Bridget
        May 22, 2012 @ 01:58:38

        I haven’t read The Curious Incident, but I’ve heard a lot about it and it’s on my TBRE (To Be Read…Eventually) list. I’m not overly interested in it but I’m sure I’ll read it one day 🙂

  2. Linda Bott
    May 22, 2012 @ 11:48:46

    I have read both Room and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night and have to say that I preferred Room.I thought Room was good in the way it was narrated by the little boy and showed his confusion on being in the ‘real world’ as, unlike his mother, he hadn’t realised that he was a prisoner. I didn’t really put it in the category of misery memoir,and, despite the darkness of the story I did enjpy it.

    Reply

    • TheBrontëSister
      May 22, 2012 @ 21:55:55

      I completely agree with everything you’ve just said. I wanted to bring the theme of the misery memoir into my review just because it’s exactly what I thought this was going to be… but this is something else entirely. And yes, I much preferred “Room” to “The Curious Incident” – I thought there were many more hidden depths to “Room”.

      I’ve also gone off Mark Haddon after some horribly squeamish scenes in the very odd “A Spot Of Bother”, his second novel after “The Curious Incident”. Not my cup of tea…

      Reply

  3. Trackback: Book Review: One Day by David Nicholls « TheBrontëSister
  4. Trackback: Book Review: One Day by David Nicholls « TheBrontëSister

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