When life pre-empts fiction, it is then at a point where one pauses and asks not “What?”, but “Why?” It is post-event, post action and leaves one only with the option to ‘react’. If you are to pick up a copy of Room by Emma Donoghue without knowing of the terrifying and chilling stories of the captivity and abuse of Jaycee Lee Dugard or Elizabeth Fritzl, the story would lack none of its impact or amazement at such an existence as that lived by Jack and Ma. However, armed with the details of real and similar stories, the gritty accounts of subterranean and bunkered life, then your reaction to ‘fiction’ becomes blurred.
Room is the story of 5-year old Jack, born into existence but not into the world as we know it or as his mother once knew it. Jack’s worlds is eleven feet square and very little else. Jack, oblivious to anything outside the lead-lines walls of his shed-prison, is unsettlingly content in his private world where the only human contact he encounters are that of his mother and the shadowy night visits of ‘Old Nick’. Room presents how captivity tortures Ma and Jack but in very different ways. Ma was just 18 when she was kidnapped and locked up. She was a college student, popular, studious and care-free. It was her good nature that saw her lured by her captor. Her memories of her former life are a constant pain as she knows of the joy of life outside Room. Jack, born into this walled world knows nothing of life and is unknown to him, tortured by his complete ignorance of real life.
The story is told in Jack’s voice. The child narrator adds a purer innocence to the sad tale. His frustration is palpable at not being able to comprehend the possibility of life outside Room. Ma and a small television set are his only sources of information. Anything outside of this is beyond Jack’s mind. His friends are inanimate objects, the drab and meagre possessions which make up the home. Relationships with these objects such as ‘lamp’, ‘ball’ or ‘rug’ are easy to Jack as they can’t hurt him.
Jack has simply always only known a life where he is enclosed. The symbolism of his birth and life are not lost on this theme. He moves from the womb, to Room, sleeps in a wardrobe and even makes a break for freedom wrapped up in ‘Rug’. Ma, ever the figure of strength balances her hatred for her captor with her patience and devotion to her son.
Protecting Jack at all costs from the grips of ‘Old Nick’ is the greatest act of devotion she can deliver.
The idea of a captive verses public life are explored and teased out expertly by Donoghue. The media frenzy and incessant and morbid interest by the public in their brutal and grotesque life in Room is a fair reflection and commentary on current society where the instant access and dissemination of ‘news’ and information via social media prove no-one or nothing is ever private anymore. While never contemplating a return to ‘Room’, the pressure of media notoriety provides its own struggles for the tragic pair of Ma and Jack. How Jack comprehends the possibility of human contact, the concept of family, of truth, trust and freedom make this story much more than just a commentary on any case of a sadistic rapist in Austria. In fact, to limit this book to simply being a knee-jerk reaction to that case does not do justice to the inert beauty, warmth and also tragedy of Jack and Ma’s life and relationship.
The voice of Jack as the child narrator is effective but at times does prove inconsistent as at times he composes sentences that should be far beyond his comprehension or vocabulary. This is more than a minor quibble in what is simply an astounding and horrifying story. Donoghue’s child narrator is still a most engaging child character, as credible as perhaps Mark Haddon’s child narrator in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. It is a book that compels you to read it in one sitting so don’t be surprised if you find your entire day or night devoted to this story! On finishing this 2010 Man Booker prize nominated book, the tragic realisation is that life indeed is stranger and more terrifying than fiction.