Hazel McHaffie

Emma Donoghue


Jack is five years old. He lives in a tiny single room measuring 11 feet square with a locked door, Bath, Toilet, Wardrobe, Bed, Table, Freezer, Cabinet, Rocker and TV. And Ma.

Their only contact with the outside world is a skylight and the night-time visits of ‘Old Nick.’ For Jack, ‘real’ is their room and each other. Everything else is ‘TV’ or ‘Outside Space’ – fantasy.

But Ma has her reasons for giving Jack these distorted perceptions. She may be  young and traumatised by the horror of being abducted at the age of nineteen and incarcerated in a shed for years, but she proves to be an inspirational teacher, using the rudiments of life to educate him – egg-shells, scraps of cardboard and fabric, the degrees of light coming through the skylight, the spit they leave after cleaning their teeth.

Then a chance advert on TV raises questions in Jack’s mind. How come Ma’s painkiller pills are on TV? The pills are real. TV is unreal. Suddenly his cosy assurance is shattered.

‘How can TV be pictures of real things?

I think about them all floating around in Outside Space outside the walls, the couch and the necklaces and the bread and the fillers and the airplanes and all the shes and hes, the boxers and the man with one leg and the puffy-haired woman, they’re floating past Skylight. I wave to them, but there’s skyscrapers as well and cows and ships and trucks, it’s crammed out there, I count all the stuff that might crash into Room. I can’t breathe right …’

Ma’s explanation is memorable: ‘Stories are a different kind of true.

But after spinning her own kind of ‘true’ for five years, she has her work cut out disabusing Jack of all the myths and misunderstandings she’s implanted in his head to prepare him for a reality more harsh, more scary than anything she’s told him so far. Life outside.

RoomThrough Jack’s eyes we see the taken-for-granted world in a whole new light. Scary stuff. But sufficiently convincing for it to come as a surprise to hear a dispassionate perspective: ‘The despot’s victims have an eerie pallor and appear to be in a borderline catatonic state.’ Jack is a ‘malnourished boy, unable to walk.’ (As you can see, I’m trying not to give anything of the storyline away.)

My only complaint was that in places Jack’s speech patterns are unconvincing. The words seem to be jumbled for no good reason other than to convey his youth and confusion. They sit uncomfortably alongside his precocious facility with words elsewhere.

Otherwise I really enjoyed this book, Room, by Emma Donoghue. It’s unique, powerful and moving, and, despite its dark setting, it offers heartwarming homage to the triumph of the love between a quite remarkable mother and son. It fully deserved to be shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Man Booker this year. And you know how rarely I sing the praises of these contenders!

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