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Room

by Emma Donoghue

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Room by Emma Donoghue
© Little, Brown & Company
Little, Brown and Company, September 2010

Seven years ago, Jack's mother was kidnapped and held captive in a man's soundproof garden shed. Equipped with little more than an analog television, the room, measuring eleven feet square, is her prison - but to Jack, her son (now five years old), Room is the whole world.

Told from the perspective of precocious Jack, Emma Donoghue's Room tells the story of him and his mother as they try to cope and grow in a room that seems to shrink further as they continue to age. More saccharine than it is Sartre, Room aims for the heartstrings and plucks them all. It's a dreadful story, but imbued with such tenderness and hope that any sort of reader will surely empathize with Room's inhabitants.

The trouble with Room is that it is fueled by dialogue that's structured entirely around clarification. Jack, being only five, has trouble with idioms and expressions and questions nearly everything his mother says to him. Here, they discuss "Old Nick", their captor:
"He looks human, but there's nothing inside."
I'm confused. "Like a robot?"
"Worse."
"One time there was this robot on Bob the Builder - "
Ma butts in. "You know your heart, Jack?"
"Bam bam." I show her on my chest.
"No, but your feeling bit, where you're sad or scared or laughing or stuff?"
That's lower down, I think it's in my tummy.
"Well, he hasn't got one."
"A tummy?"

With a five-year old narrator, this kind of dialogue is an unfortunate necessity when Donoghue decides to delve into more complex themes. While these sorts of scenes expose the important difficulty in separating what a person says and what a person means, they do add an exorbitant amount of clutter to the already-cramped Room.
Considering how heavily Room relies on these extrapolations of intention, it is difficult not to question what Donoghue herself is trying to say underneath her story. Despite its surface, Room is much more about media and technology than it is about a mother's love. Jack's only insight into the outside world is through the room's television, which has a far deeper influence on his growth than his mother's hand. Jack understands kidnapping because of Swiper the Fox on Dora the Explorer, and consistently filters Room's real-life drama through the cartoons he sees on Nickelodeon. Donoghue is successful in exposing how influenced a child can be by television, but by holding on to this theme she lets much of the book's emotional relationships fall flat.

Donoghue crams Room full of more than it can hold. She has great success in making her readers feel as cramped as Jack and his mother, but the book tries to fit in far too many stirring vignettes. When it becomes clear that Room is predominantly interested in television's role in a child's upbringing, many of the tender scenes between mother and son feel superfluous and ultimately lose their emotional resonance. Donoghue deserves accolades for her ability to transfer her character's emotions onto her readers, but I can't help wishing she wrote Room with a bit more constraints.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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