‘We both know what Jack cannot know’ – Room by Emma Donoghue

The publishers promise that this is a book like no other. In a market saturated by ‘misery memoirs’, tales of horrendous childhood suffering, each one seemingly more horrific than the last, Room could have been one more voyeuristic trip into other people’s misery. But this is fiction. And it’s an important distinction. While the creative seed of this novel was taken from real-life events, imagining it allows the author a freedom to explore the idea of a child growing up knowing only eleven square feet of one room.

Room is told through the eyes of Jack, who has just turned five and who was born in Room after his mother was snatched from the street by Old Nick, their captor. His world is this room – he cannot comprehend of anything outside its four walls. And the only person he has ever known, with whom he shares everything, is Ma. That is until one night they enact a plan for Jack to escape by lying ‘dead’ inside a rug and running as soon as Old Nick takes him out in his truck to bury him.

For a novel about such a disturbing subject, Room is surprisingly lacking in the horror of Ma and Jack’s situation. Jack has only ever known life in Room and so it is normal to him. To Jack, Room is everything; it is safe, the place he knows, the only place he can sleep. Outside, dangers lie everywhere and Jack yearns to be back in the womb of Room. And because the action is seen through his eyes, he tells us nothing of the suffering we might have heard had his mother narrated the story. He cannot understand her pain, though the reader can and so when he refers to his mother being ‘Gone’, as though she is ‘switched off’, the author gives the reader a sideways look; we both know what Jack cannot know.

What is really striking about this book is this way that Donoghue has gone back to first principles in the way Jack sees everything around him. For, if you have only ever seen one rug in your life, it will become Rug to you – the only one that you can conceive of. Linguists argue about the way we acquire language, whether the limits of our language and what we can physically describe are the limits to our world, or whether our experience is what forms our language, with each experience creating a word. Jack and his mother share a secret language of made-up words in Room, words which unite them and set them apart from the rest of the world. So even when they are free, they are still very much an ‘other’. Similarly, Jack does not have the language skills to understand metaphors, idioms or similes and the world outside Room is not only incomprehensible in scale and newness, but also in terms of language.

Any Cop?: Powerful and moving, Room is a thought-provoking novel. Yes, it’s a page turner and a book you’ll probably read in one sitting, but it is more than that. Room stays with you and, yes, do believe the hype: it will change you.

Clare Hey

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