Book Review: Room by Emma Donaghue


Plato’s analogy of “The Cave” asks the important question: if we are only ever exposed to one type of life, can there be anything else? If a man is born within the walls of a cave, knows no light, no sound beyond the echo of his own voice on the cave walls, no human beside himself, can there ever truly be an outside world? The child’s riddle of if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear, does it still make a sound takes on a new meaning under Plato’s analogy. Just because our perceived version of reality may be warped, that doesn’t mean the real thing isn’t out there somewhere, waiting for us to discover it.

Enter Jack, a vibrant 5-year-old boy whose entire existence consists of Room, a 10 x 10 enclosed, windowless room where he lives with his mother (who is unnamed for the entirety of the book). While at first this book could be disorienting because it is narrated completely from start to finish in the voice of a child, this book held an extremely powerful message. We’re all familiar with the kidnapping case of the girls in Cleveland, one of which was forced to give birth to her captor’s baby while being held prisoner. This is the situation for the mother in Emma Donaghue’s story. Kidnapped at 19, the young woman is held captive for 7 years and during that time she gives birth to Jack, who tells this story only as a 5-year-old can.

The TV is a world of fantasy, roads and streets, people, animals, places that aren’t real, just in TV. The real world is Room. The only people who exist are Jack and Ma and Old Nick. He listens each night that Old Nick comes into the room and counts the squeaks of the bed. Of course as adult readers, we know what’s going on in that room and it makes our skin crawl. We know that it happens all over the world every day, and it makes us sick. But Jack has no idea. His mother has done her job and shields him from the evils of the world as best she can.

Then, after the Great Escape, Jack is forced to accept the real world and sees, for the first time in his life, the fantasy world of TV come to life. It is hard to accept that it is all real. He keeps asking if they can go back to Room, and that alone makes me want to scream! No you can’t go back to that room you silly kid! You have no idea what that room did to your mother, what it’s still doing to her! You can never fully understand until you are much older. But of course, you can’t scream that at a 5-year-old. The only thing a mother, or anyone, can do is to let him grow in the world. Shape him the best you can, and hope that one day, you’ll have done enough and raised him right for him to understand everything you did for him you did out of love. Hopefully along the way, you can learn to forgive yourself for what you kept from him and hope that he will love you no matter what the real world throws at him.

This was an incredibly powerful and moving story. It made me sick and angry, but it is a testament to a mother’s love and the resilience of human nature.

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