"He's a very special boy."
Ma shrugs. "He's just spent his first five years in a strange place, that's all."
"You don't think he's been shaped -- damaged -- by his ordeal?"
"It wasn't an ordeal to Jack, it was just how things were." (p. 236)
Room, based on the Josef Fritzl case, is Emma Donoghue's seventh novel: it was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and is being described as her breakthrough work. I've very much enjoyed previous works (Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, Life Mask), which have featured historical settings, lesbian relationships, a darkly comic streak. Room is not a novel that one enjoys, precisely, though the surgical precision and the careful restraint of the prose is amazing. I am astounded by this novel, and found it profoundly affecting and surprisingly upbeat, but I don't think I ever want to read it again.
Room tells the story of a young woman abducted, imprisoned in a converted garden shed ('Room') for seven years, and repeatedly raped by her captor, by whom she has a son. The story is told from the point of view of the boy, Jack, who is celebrating his fifth birthday as the book opens.
Times are hard. Turns out the unnamed captor has lost his job, and is struggling to pay his mortgage. 'Ma' (she's never named) realises that if he believes he's going to lose his house, she and Jack are in grave danger. She's tried, of course, to escape before: she's attacked 'Old Nick', she's signalled in Morse code, she and Jack have stood under the skylight screaming as loudly as they can. Now she has to persuade Jack to help. There's one major problem with this: Jack has grown up believing that nothing outside the walls of Room is real. Everything he sees on the TV, everything in books, is made up.
SPOILERS FROM HERE
They do escape, and the second part of the ordeal begins: the media circus, the medical tests, the reunion with family. The construction of the legal case against 'Old Nick', and Jack's unwilling adjustment to life outside, a life in which he's no longer the centre of his mother's existence, a life in which he has to rebuild every one of his beliefs about reality:
When I was four I thought everything in TV was just TV, then I was five and Ma unlied about lots of it being pictures of real and Outside being totally real. Now I'm in Outside but it turns out lots of it isn't real at all. (p.277)The fact that the novel's told from Jack's viewpoint sets it apart from the average crime novel: Donoghue makes his voice credible, but never sentimental or cute. Jack is a child, as curious and accepting and selfish as any other: if anything, the most harrowing moments were those of unthinking cruelty on his part. We only see 'Ma' through his eyes: she doesn't even get a name of her own, but her courage and resilience and sense of humour are plain as day.
After I'd read this, I didn't read another novel for nearly a month: even then, I felt the need for something 'easy'.
Report of reading and Q&A session with Emma Donoghue