Hardcover, 321 pages
Published September 13th 2010 by Little, Brown and Company
0316098337 (ISBN13: 9780316098335)
Jack Tenpenny, Ma, Old Nick
Man Booker Prize Nominee (2010), Orange Prize Nominee for Fiction Shortlist (2011), Pennsylvania Young Readers’ Choice Award Nominee for Young Adults (2013), ALA Alex Award (2011), Indies Choice Book Award for Fiction (2011)
Room deserves all the accolades it has received from critics around the world. Donoghue has taken the all too common story of a woman kidnapped and imprisoned and turned it into a novel about the connection between a mother and a child and of survival and the human capacity to adjust. The novel is told from the point of view of five year old Jack. Room, an eleven by eleven foot space, is where Jack was born and the only place he knows. He knows there are other ‘worlds’ – he sees them on TV but they are ‘Outside’ and Room is his and Ma’s.
We meet Jack on his fifth birthday and through his eyes we watch how he and Ma survive – by playing, singing, reading, talking, and most of all, from keeping Old Nick, their captor, from getting angry. Jack and Ma live in a tiny world with routines and habits, and for Jack, it is how the world is suppose to be. But when a series of events occur that changes everything, Jack and Ma must adjust and learn a new way to cope. So few books have created such a powerful character we can completely and utterly engage with, yet who provides us with a brilliant study in dichotomies. Given a different set of circumstances, Jack would be just a boy who, readers would abandon soon enough, but Jack’s story, horrifying and uplifting, simple and complex, made it near impossible to turn away and put the book down.
Despite the potential pitfalls of such a young narrator, Donoghue makes it work brilliantly. Donoghue manages to balance the voice with keeping the story moving, preventing the reading from become bored with the perspective of a young child. Because Jack is safely inside the wardrobe when Old Nick comes at night, the focus is rarely on the kidnapper. Instead, the reader comes to understand the intensity of the relationship between Jack and Ma – they depend on one another for their survival – and see the effects of long term isolation – physical, mental, and emotional, on both of them. Perhaps most interestingly, we come to understand Ma’s choices through his descriptions because we can understand the emotions and implications of the events even if the narrator cannot. There is an underlying horror at the conditions they face and the reality of the situation Ma is in, but it is softened because Jack has no frame of reference for it and does not comprehend all that happens around him. That he can cope is something of a miracle and a testament to our capacity to adapt.
Room is emotionally powerful and pushes us to rethink how we might respond to such circumstances. There is a moment that Donoghue could have left us with a simpler, happy-ever-after story, but she pushes past that to really explore how experience shapes us, defines us, and ultimately the world around us. The simple language that belies the complexity of the topics – isolation, media, consumerism, family, celebrity status and so many others – is a testament to the brilliant writing of Donoghue and her determination to tell the stories of those normally dismissed because they are different.
This novel is the best I’ve read this year, deserves multiple rereads, and is now among my favorites. A brilliant work of literary art that defies its premise.