Emma Donoghue’s “Room”, based loosely on the horrifying story of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian who kept his daughter in captivity for years and had children with her, is imaginably a harrowing and profoundly affecting book.
Told from the viewpoint of five-year old Jack, we come to know Jack and his Ma, and their horribly confined existence in ‘Room’, a garden shed, which is the only life Jack ever knew. Ma, abducted when she was eighteen, has had to put up with endless abuse at the hands of ‘Old Nick’, her captor, at whose mercy she and her son live. He visits them nearly nightly, ostensibly to bring supplies, but really demanding sexual favours of Ma, while Jack lies in Wardrobe, counting how many times ‘Old Nick creaks the bed’. Ma tries to create a safe fictional world for Jack, and succeeds in so far as he feels safe, he knows of no outside world, and only accesses ‘otherness’ from the world of TV, of which she does not allow him to watch much and which she says are ‘made up’. Each week is programmed into a series of activites and rituals by which to pass the time, and which strikes one as Beckettian. However, as Jack turns five, and becomes more curious and physically bigger, Ma finds Room becoming smaller and smaller, and after an unimaginably cruel punishment by Old Nick, where they had to do without heat or food for a whole week, Ma takes matters into her own hands and begins to plot their escape.
The childish perspective of the book is really beautifully conveyed through the use of language and images, and this allows us to really feel the pathos of the situation. Jack talks of ‘waterfalling’ the milk, refers to Ma’s painkillers as ‘Killers’, refers to the moonlight glimpsed through Skylight as ‘God’s silver face’ and as we see already personifies all the objects with which they share their space, speaking of them as friends to which they are firmly attached.
Their adjustment into the real world is understandably difficult, and Jack longs often to be back in ‘Room’ where everything was safe and familiar, and where he had Ma all to himself. He is overwhelmed with other people in the world as well as the vast range of sensory experience that was hitherto amiss. Ma, likewise, succumbs to dependence once she is out in the real world. For so long, she had to remain strong, not only for her own survival, but more importantly for Jack’s, who means the world to her. In fact she still nursed Jack, and the lack of understanding that greeted her in the outside world in this regard showed people’s absolute lack of understanding as to her situation. The line of questioning that followed their escape often held an accusatory tone, suggesting that her care for Jack was less than adequate, and this ignorance drove her, quite literally, mad. Life on the outside, as she was quickly remembering, was difficult in itself
Overall this is a really excellent, creative work which takes one out of their comfort zone, and offers an alternative view on reality, which, we are very aware as readers, was a reality for very many people. People in captivity of all kinds experience something of the trauma and dependence that Donoghue so incitefully describes. Her playful use of language and depiction of humorous scenes adds greatly to the book, giving the overall story an uplifting character.