Room by Emma Donoghue (2010)
March 2009, the world looked on in horror as Joseph Fritzl was sensationally sentenced to life imprisonment after being found guilty of rape, incest, murder and enslavement, after it emerged that for 24 years, he had kept his daughter locked in a cramped, squalid cellar; fathering seven children with her.
Inspired by the cases of Elizabeth Fritzl and Jacee Lee Dugard, it is not surprising that when Room was published in 2010, it was surrounded by controversy. As popular as ‘tragic memoirs’ are in the contemporary reading market, Room seemed intrusive and voyeuristic. The success of Room is that this is not the case. Room is told through the eyes of five year old Jack, who lives with Ma – his mother, in ‘Room’. Ma has learnt to survive her captivity by spending her life trying to make Jack’s life as normal as possible. They watch television and they have ‘Sunday Treat’. But there is a subtle disturbing truth beneath their normality; Jack does not think anything exists outside of ‘Room’, and ‘Sunday Treat’ comes from Old Nick, the man who comes in at night. One of their favourite games to play is ‘Scream’ – standing on the table and screaming for help through their only window, the skylight.
The exhilarating climax of their escape is antipodal to the aftermath of life in ‘Room’. The last half of the book describes Ma and Jack’s life in ‘Outside’, and their adjustment to being free. The drastic change, though, proves to be difficult for everyone. Ma has times when she is ‘Gone’, and Jack, who has never been in the outside world, finds more and more things to be confused and anxious about. Some of the most heart-breaking scenes in Room happen once they have escaped. Donoghue writes with a beautifully touching and sympathetic voice, and we can understand why Jack wants to go back to live in ‘Room’, and how Ma increasingly finds the world post-room almost too traumatic to live in.
The genius of Room is the portrayal of Jack’s concept of reality. Jack’s innocent misunderstanding that the people he watches on the television do not exist; that the whole world is just ‘Room’ is a horrifying concept to come to terms with. Jack’s optimistic outlook is both comforting and unsettling, as we, the readers, realise that Jack will never be able to fully escape ‘Room’.
The relationship between Ma and Jack with the outside world suggests that freedom is not always where we feel safe. The shift in the dynamics of Ma and Jack’s relationship post escape suggests that close, supportive relationships are essential to survival. Beneath the horrific plot lies a heartfelt mother-son relationship. What gets Ma and Jack through their captivity, and their struggle to adjust to life outside, is each other. Room represents the invaluable support we find in family; if Ma was alone in Room, the story would have been very different.