Warning – contains spoilers!
It’s hard to think of a more ambitious literary project than Room. To address such sensitive issues through the eyes of a five-year-old child is a challenge very few writers could carry off. But Emma Donoghue succeeds, and ultimately Jack proves the best narrator imaginable, as a kind of insider/outsider figure: witness to the crimes perpetrated against himself and his mother without fully understanding them. For Jack, life in Room is normal – it is Outside which is unreal. Consequently, his experience of Room enables him to explore what freedom really means. Once beyond its confines, it is the media, clinicians and society in general which all impose their own expectations on Jack and Ma, limiting them in new ways. And so, in this respect, the story invites us to rethink our attitudes towards imprisonment from a whole new set of angles. As Ma angrily says:
“…the thing is, slavery’s not a new invention. And solitary confinement – did you know, in America we’ve got more than twenty-five thousand prisoners in isolation cells? Some of them for twenty years…As for kids – there’s places where babies lie in orphanages five to a cot with pacifiers taped into heir mouths, kids in prisons, whatever, making carpets till they go blind…People are locked up in all sorts of ways.” (293)
What I took most from the book, however, was its focus on the victims rather than their kidnapper. To be honest, it might be difficult to imagine such an horrific crime were it not for the widely documented precedents of Josef Fritzl or Fred West. In media reports of such cases, the victim is so often obscured – a pale wreck of a human being if they survive, a mere corpse buried in a shallow grave if they don’t. But Donoghue’s book reverses that perception. It is ‘Old Nick’ who becomes the half-seen, shadowy figure lurking behind the scenes of this novel. Ma and Jack are the real focus – their suffering, their developement, and their triumph against the odds. That is what makes Room such a life-affirming story, and ultimately such a compelling read. You want to know that, in spite of experiencing the greatest evil imaginable, it is possible not just to survive, but to flourish. Spoiler: it is.