Room was a big deal when it came out a couple of years ago. If you tend to stay current with popular fiction, you’ve probably heard of it. I saw this book on a “recommended” shelf at my local library, and I vaguely remembered the buzz about it. I had zero interest in it back then, so I’m not sure why I picked it up this time. The subject matter is just not appealing to me: the main characters are a woman kept captive for seven years in a shed, and her five-year-old son, born and raised for the entirety of his life within that small room. The story is told from the perspective of the little boy.
See – not appealing. I try not to pay much attention to these sorts of stories when they really happen in the news, although of course I’m glad when any victim survives. The existence (not to mention popularity) of fictional TV shows that feature such stories enrages me. I can get into some dark and defeated thinking about misogyny if I dwell on any of this for very long.
So, I was sincerely surprised that I liked this book so much. Room is a really different sort of book from the true-crime, voyeuristic type of thing I was expecting. There are a couple of genuinely tense scenes – this is the first book in a long time that I literally could not put down because I NEEDED TO KNOW what was going to happen. However, this book isn’t a thriller. It’s much more than that.
(Spoiler warning here, but if you’ve heard of the book you probably know the main plot point that divides the book in half.)
What sets Room apart is its narrator, Jack. Through his eyes, the room he has spent his entire life in is not a prison. It is his whole world, named Room, and he is busy and happy there. This is thanks to his resourceful, loving mother (“Ma”). It becomes clear to Ma, however, that she will not be able to keep protecting Jack much longer. They have to get out. The first half of the book is set in Room, and the second half occurs after Jack and Ma escape.
The first half of the book is really amazing. Somehow, Ms. Donoghue took a horror story and made it into a compelling, moving study of motherhood – it’s almost a fable. It’s not maudlin, and while Ma is heroic and resourceful, she is not idealized. Jack read to me as an authentic voice of an intelligent kindergarten-aged kid. His character didn’t fall into the narrative traps that so many child characters do – he wasn’t cutesy or overly mature, too innocent or too perceptive. Telling the story from his perspective helps keep the book away from voyeurism, since Jack doesn’t really know what’s going on during the most horrible parts of Ma’s life.
The second half of the book expands Ma and Jack’s world to include the rest of Ma’s family, as well as the public at large. These chapters are fascinating. I found myself mulling over issues both near and far from my experiences, like how to raise secure but independent children, the forced celebrity that comes from the news, what rape victims have to endure to pursue justice, and even relationships with step-parents. This half of the book in particular was not what I expected. It was much better, and nothing about it was simplified. The ending was perfect.
I would try to compare this book to others I’ve read, but I’ve honestly never read anything quite like it before. It is a gripping, affecting, and beautiful book. I highly recommend it.