I’ll start by saying I totally get the appeal of Room. The use of the unreliable narrator is particularly effective, creating a palpable dramatic irony and enhancing the reader’s apprehension by forcing us to fill in for ourselves all of the horrific details that our five-year-old narrator Jack does not, and cannot, understand about Room. I’m really digging deep into what I remember from high school English lit classes, but I digress. The point is that the exaggerated naivete of the narrator ratchets up tension for the reader, since there is so much left unsaid on the page.
From Jack’s perspective, Room is the whole world. It is where he was born and where he has spent the entirety of his young life. He lives there with his Ma, and they are occasionally visited by Old Nick, who brings them things they ask for as a “Sundaytreat.” In short order, despite Jack’s youthful enthusiasm for their shared mundane activities, readers are able to glean that Ma and Jack are not just, say, rural folk, fans of simple pleasures and small spaces; they’re actually Old Nick’s prisoners. Jack doesn’t realize this because as far as he knows, Room is the whole world. Ma had clearly made a decision that the best thing for her young child was to teach him to appreciate the world he’s in, perhaps correctly intuiting that he would be too young to understand or cope with the concept of captivity. Under the guise of normal play, she devises “games” like Scream, where for minutes at a time they yell as loudly as they can in the direction of the skylight above their heads, but the devastation of their imprisonment is a burden she carries alone.
But Ma is not the main character, not really. It is through Jack’s deliberately cultivated shortsightedness that we experience all of this, and as they say, your mileage may vary on how much you enjoy that. I found Room to be infernally frustrating, as someone who is not charmed by children and finds empathizing with them to be an exercise in futility. So while I understand that getting the first-person perspective of Ma would have stripped the book of a major part of its uniqueness and poignancy, I found myself wishing for it nonetheless. I didn’t dislike Room: it was a thought-provoking and rewarding read, but it wasn’t an enjoyable one. And that’s not because of the subject matter — I can enjoy reading about dark subjects on both a visceral and an intellectual level — but the narration is definitely a gimmick that I think most readers will either take to immediately or find it kind of a slog throughout. I was more in the latter camp, but as I said earlier, I get the appeal of Room and still would recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different.