01 March 2011


Declan Hughes, reviewing Emma Donoghue's Room for the Irish Times, said that "this book will break your heart". Perhaps he's right ... but I think that it will also fill your heart to bursting point with fierce hope for the indomitability of the human spirit.

If you remember John Fowles' novel The collector, start there. If not, think of Natascha Kampusch. Either way, don't get too literally hung up on what is only a point of departure. The unnamed woman in Room is, like both of those women, victim of a kidnap. Like Miranda Grey in The collector, she was taken as a young adult; like Natascha Kampusch, she has survived eight years of captivity in the twelve foot square "Room" of the title; but she is neither or them. She is unnamed because the story is told entirely as interior monologue by her five year old son Jack, born in Room (he capitalises most nouns and uses them as names: Room, Rug, Wardrobe) as a result of repeated rape by her captor. Jack knows her (and refers to her) only as "Ma".

Both characters (Ma and Jack) are astonishingly powerful extended psychological pen portraits. Both are strong, resilient characters – and kept that way by mutual reliance, the depiction of which is a tour de force in itself. I have never known anyone who has been though this exact set of experiences; but I have known mothers in their twenties and their small children, trapped in or recently escaped from abusive relationships, who displayed exactly the same codependence portrayed here. Just from this perfectly realised portrayal, Room will amply reward the time you spend reading it.

In a larger sense it's about courage, devotion, freedom, love, loyalty, psychological toughness, resilience, self reliance, and many other things ... but also about the limits of those things, what lies beyond them, and what they cost.

Then again, it is an exhilarating intellectual journey: an intriguing, non SF example of what Ray Girvan describes as "conceptual breakthrough" fiction – and a new take on Ray's suggestion that such fictions peculiarly suit young protagonists. Jack has never seen the outside world, and believes his twelve foot by twelve foot Room to be the whole universe. The whole book showcases his dawning realisation that there is more reality than he can imagine.

But, before all of that, it is a gripping and beautifully told story.

[many thanks to David P for the recommendation]

A couple of (possibly random) connections which may make no sense to anyone else: reading this book sent me back to two personal old favourites. First, a book which is at least superficially very different, The stolen child by Kevin Donohue (no "g", no relation) which I have mentioned previously. Second, Tanita Tikaram's song "World outside your window".

  • Emma Donoghue, Room. 2010, London: Picador. 9780330519021 or 0330519026 (pbk)
  • John Fowles, The collector. 1963, London: Jonathan Cape. [newer edition: 2004, London: Vintage. 0099470470 (pbk.)]
  • Keith Donohue, The stolen child. 2006, London: Jonathan Cape. 9780224076968 or 0224076965 (hbk.), 9780224076975 or 0224076973 (pbk.).
  • Tanita Tikaram, "World outside your window" on Ancient heart. 1988, WEA. 2292438772.

1 comment:

Ray Girvan said...

At the risk of trivialising the topic, it's hard not to think of the Emo Philips routine:

When I was a kid my parents used to tell me, "Emo, don't go near the cellar door!" One day when they were away, I went up to the cellar door. And I pushed it and walked through and saw strange, wonderful things, things I had never seen before, like... trees. Grass. Flowers. The sun... that was nice... the sun..