Warning: This review contains plot spoilers.
Room: A Novel. By Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown, 321 pp., $24.99.
By Janice Harayda
Emma Donoghue calls Room a novel about a “battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus,” and it’s easy to see why. Her narrator is 5-year-old Jack, who spends his life imprisoned in a garden shed until he emerges from his tomb-like structure on Easter. He escapes with the help of his saintly mother, who has devoted herself to saving him from their jailor, a man who abducted and raped her and fathered Jack. Their story brims with references to God, Jesus and Christian saints.
Why, then, has the religious dimension of Room had so little attention from critics? Perhaps because this is a novel at war with itself. It draws on so many literary forms or genres — satire, mystery, horror, captivity narrative, Resurrection allegory — that each gets at once too much and too little development. And if it’s hard to miss the symbolism of a character metaphorically reborn on Easter, you can see why critics might declare a cease-fire between the conflicting aims of the book and focus on the plot and voice of its precocious young narrator.
Donoghue tells an inherently tragic story inspired by the Austrian case of Josef Fritzl, who raped and locked up his daughter Elisabeth, who gave birth to a son freed at the age of 5. But in Room, young Jack describes his stunted life in such sunny terms that you don’t feel its poignancy. His narrative reads like a cross between Kids Say the Darndest Things! and the memoir of an abused child who doesn’t know he’s being abused.
Jack likes his prison because Ma fills his life with the comforting routines urged by the child-rearing manuals she presumably hasn’t read. His rituals range from thanking “Baby Jesus” at meals and watching Dora the Explorer on television to hiding in a wardrobe when his captor rapes his mother during nocturnal visits:
“When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight it’s 217 creaks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops. I don’t know what would happen if I didn’t count, because I always do.”
Donoghue uses a similar voice throughout Room, and while she has a feel for how 5-year-olds speak, a little of this goes a long way. Jack has a penchant for a half dozen or so linguistic errors common among young children, such as taking figures of speech literally. He reflects, after seeing a key ring that says POZZO’S HOUSE OF PIZZA: “I wonder how a house is made of pizza, wouldn’t it flop?” He says the Twenty-Third Psalm at bedtime and thinks: “The cup overflowing must make an awful mess.” These lines come dangerously close to sounding like the words of a child who isn’t just cute but is trying to be cute (which can’t be true because no one hears his internal monologue). Jack’s other errors include syntactical slips, such as “Please may you have me more pancakes?,” and a failure to grasp cause-and-effect: He expects to wake up from a nap without the cold he has. And many of such lines are perfectly believable in a 5-year-old.
Less credible are the passages that try to invest Jack with both innocence and worldly-wise intelligence. In one paragraph Jack calls a woman a “she person” but recognizes the words “impregnable” and “catatonic” on a TV report. He also grasps that Ma and a doctor are talking about “stuff like depersonalization and jamais vu.” These passages serve the story less than they do Donoghue’s desire to satirize and explain aspects of her characters’ experience. Late in the novel, the liberated Jack turns into a moralist who spouts folk wisdom about the adults he has met:
“In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time. Even Grandma often says that, but she and Steppa don’t have jobs, so I don’t know how persons with jobs do the jobs and all the living as well. In Room me and Ma had time for everything.”
That passage panders to readers want everything spelled out and adds an unsavory dimension to the link Room has to the Fritzl case. It implies that a bright side exists to the sadistic crime that Felix Fritzl endured in real life and Jack does in fiction: Ma has more time for you! It’s true that children long to have their parents to themselves and that, in that sense, Jack had a fantasy life, complete with breastfeeding through the age of 5. But the simplistic moral served up by Jack doesn’t begin to do justice to the complexity of such an experience. It reduces a theme of Room to a therapeutic cliché: “Kids are resilient.”
As for that Resurrection allegory, it’s a case of religion lite, the kind found in The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Mary and the Devil may battle for young Jesus, but the spiritual stakes are low. True believers know, as do the authors of all great variations on the Faust story, that no Satan worthy of the name wants just to lock you up. The devil wants your soul. Old Nick desires simply the bodies of two people for whom he cares little. The ending of Room allows for ambiguity about how Jack will adjust to life outside the garden shed that is his Gethsemane. But his upbeat moralizing suggests that his soul is safe. If Jack has been resurrected, he has arisen not to judge the quick and the dead – only the parents who don’t want to play with their children because “they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults.”
Best line: Ma replies when her lawyer tells her that her kidnapper robbed her of “the seven best years” of her life: “How do you know they would have been the best years of my life?”
Worst line: “Ma shows Dr. Clay her homework, and they talk more about not very interesting stuff like depersonalization and jamais vu.” This line comes from a 5-year-old who calls a woman “a she person” and hasn’t fully mastered English syntax. And why would he remember the line if it wasn’t “interesting”?
Published: September 2010
Furthermore: Donoghue found part of her inspiration for Room in the case of Elisabeth Fritzl, whose father imprisoned her for 24 years in a dungeon-like area of their Austrian home. Josef Fritzl raped and impregnated his daughter, who gave birth in captivity to a son, Felix, who was 5 years old when he was freed. Donoghue called Room a battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus in an interview in the Economist.
Caveat lector: Room is written at a second-grade (roughly 7-year-old), according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that come with the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. This is understandable given that the narrator a bright 5-year-old. But if the reading level is dumbed-down for a literary reason, it’s still dumbed-down.
Second opinion: One of the most complex analyses of Room came from James Wood, the fiction critic for the New Yorker, in a London Review of Books review now behind a paywall. (“Rite of Corruption,” LRB, Oct. 21, 2010.) Wood said that Donoghue shows “some acuteness and wit” but that her use of the Fritzl case seems “exploitative and a little cheap.” Room was a finalist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.
Reading Group Guide to Room: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with 1o discussion questions for Room appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 11, 2011, in the post that directly preceded this review.
© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.