The art of telling a very mature story with a child’s voice is one that holds a narrow ledge of success. Emma Donaghue’s Room stands proudly on that ledge. The narrative voice of Jack, a young boy that has lived his whole life in a shed, leads readers through this heart-wrenching page turner of a novel.
Starting off on Jack’s fifth birthday, the story opens up with readers exploring the limited world this boy has grown to live and love in. Through his explanation and insight, readers learn that his mother, also trapped in the shed, has explained to Jack that Room is all there is in the world. Everything else is outer space. We see the way Jack shapes his views around this ‘truth’ and how he uses this to rationalize the comings and goings of Old Nick, the man who sometimes comes at night and makes creaks on the bed with Ma. The horrors of the situation that Ma and Jack have lived in are bluntly painted in a way only a child can tell, laying out facts that he perceives as normal and the reader then pieces together for the bigger picture. At times Jack’s nonchalant behavior towards the situation he is in can off put the reader, but it’s this emotional manipulation that makes Donaghue’s writing so effective.
Another point is the way Donaghue has kept from creating an unnatural child’s voice within the story. It can be a challenge giving readers the information they need from such a young voice, and some writers fail in keeping the authenticity of this age. Language becomes too abstract, long and detailed memories are recounted even though this is uncommon in typical five year olds, and the absurd logic that children possess can be lost. Donaghue is able to keep from falling into these blunders, and is able to craft all the strange wonders young children can bring to a story. At one point in the story, Ma loses a tooth that has long since rotted. Jack keeps the tooth, terrified of throwing away a piece of his mother. Throughout the story it plays a role as a connecting line between the two characters. Anyone who has dealt with that age bracket knows of the strange rituals children can set up, and Jack is no exception to this rule. For people used to children of this age, it’s refreshing to see it portrayed so faithfully. And for others, it simply adds to the complexity and attraction of the novel.
Readers come to understand how sure of his world Jack is. Nothing phases the little boy, and he deals with everything that happens in Room with determination and an upbeat attitude—even the days where Ma slips into severe depression and is “gone”. In the second half of the novel, something shakes Jacks world, and he no longer holds the confidence that readers come to expect. With that, they are just as unsure about the rest of the book as our little narrator and wonder what could ever happen next with the little boy. Again this shows Donaghue’s excellent ability to shape and interact with the reader’s emotions.
Donaghue has stated in interviews and on her own personal website that Room was inspired by the 2008 Fritzl case in Austria, where a father locked away his daughter in the basement for over 20 years. But she also stresses that the book was inspired by actually having children. How the locked room is the metaphor for the “claustrophobic, tender bond of parenthood”. Using her own son for the inspiration of Jack obviously strengthened her ability to capture that unique narrative voice, and she states that many of Jack’s lines, jokes, kid grammar, and observations were based off her son.
Room made international bestseller lists the moment it was published, garnering over a dozen awards and honours. It stands as an exceptional piece of Canadian literature, and a highlight of Donaghue’s writing career. With the new movie adaptation winning the People’s Choice Award at the summer’s Toronto International Film Fest, Room is sure to get a second run at the spotlight, something it most certainly has earned.