Book of the week: Room by Emma Donoghue

The narrator of Room is an engaging five-year old boy who has been kept, along with his mother, in a soundproof backyard shed by a serial rapist. 

(Little, Brown, 321 pages, $24.99)

Emma Donoghue’s new novel at first seemed like a book I couldn’t imagine “having any interest in reading,” said Ron Charles in The Washington Post. Taking her premise from a handful of sensational news stories, the Irish writer has imagined a serial rapist who for years keeps a young woman and her growing son, Jack, in a soundproof backyard shed. It turns out, though, that Donoghue has zero interest in producing “sadistic” thrills. She hands all narrative duties to Jack, who at 5 has never known any world beyond his prison and “lives in a state of open-faced delight” in the simple haven his mother creates for him. As he “experiences a little Copernican revolution before our eyes,” Room becomes “one of the most affecting and subtly profound novels of the year.”

Jack is one of fiction’s “most engaging” child narrators in years, said Aimee Bender in The New York Times. His language is convincingly boyish but never “overly darling.” He bestows capital-letter names on the objects in his 11-by-11-foot domain only because—in a home that’s almost an extension of his mother’s womb—“Bed” and “Rug” are as much friends as they are furnishings. As Jack learns more, a reader senses better than he can his mother’s “fierce claustrophobia” and desperation to escape. When Jack is finally forced to surrender his perfect existence, Donoghue probably lets him move past the trauma more easily than a real child would. But she also engineers “a closing that feels exactly right” for a novel that offers readers “an utterly unique way to talk about love.”

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Donoghue’s ending “doesn’t resort to false tidiness and bogus uplift,” said Laura Miller in Her views of love and motherhood also refreshingly acknowledge that both can be “mixed blessings.” While much of the novel’s early tension involves questions about how a mother can prepare her child to face the wider world, Donoghue eventually “allows an almost terrifying resilience to seep into” Jack’s narration. Like any other child, he strides toward personal independence with a “relentless and inexorable” momentum. Even as Jack comes into his own, though, “the reader understands that someday he’ll ask Ma who his father is, and they’ll enter a new part of their story.”

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