Jack has just turned five and life is changing for him. Living in a twelve by twelve room with his mother, Jack is about to discover that there is life and humanity outside his small existence. As Jack's Ma begins to explain their strange circumstances to him, Jack is bewildered. Jack's mother has been living in this small room for seven years after being abducted by a man they call Old Nick. Old Nick visits the room at night to remove the trash, leave supplies and be intimate with Jack's mother; but Jack has never actually seen Old Nick because his mother forces him to sleep in the wardrobe every night. Jack and his mother have as much of a normal life as possible, playing games, reading books and exercising, but Jack is constantly absorbed by life outside the room. As Jack's curiosity about life outside the room grows, his mother comes up with a very dangerous plan to escape the room and their captor. Written from the viewpoint of five-year-old Jack, Room is at once an innocent yet harrowing tale of survival and love between a mother and her son.
Ever since I first heard about this book, I've been itching to read it. Though I wasn't able to snag my own copy, my good friend Aarti from Booklust passed it along to me when she heard how eager I was to read it. In the past, I've read and loved many of Donoghue's books and have always been impressed with how often she manages to switch genres and create moving and compelling stories. One of my favorites of her many books is Slammerkin, a historical fiction novel with one of the most interesting protagonists I have ever come across. I was also really excited to hear that Room has been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and though I haven't read any of the other contenders, I'm hoping this really impressive book manages to hold its own in the competition.
It actually took some easing into to be able to become fully immersed in this book. I think it was because the book was narrated by five-year-old Jack, and as we all know, five-year-olds don't always have the best grasp of language and ideas. After getting my bearings though, I became fully immersed in Jack's version of the world. Living alone with only his mother for friendship and comfort, Jack looks at the inanimate objects that surround him as friends. There is Rug and Wardrobe and Bed, all fixtures and playmates for this strange little boy. Jack sees the world as a box and everything outside of it is a fantasy. Because his mother could never explain the real world to him, the boy believes that anything he sees on the television is not real and exists on another planet. For Jack, there is only Room and Ma. This leads to a lot of interesting conversations once Jack comes to understand that there is a world outside the space he knows. Donoghue does a wonderful job of creating this sheltered and naïve little person, imbuing his questions and conversations with earnestness and a certain shade of awe.
Jack relates his everyday life, and in it, even a jaded adult can see the wonder. His schedule and companions are minimal, but Jack finds his own fun and succor in his prison, never realizing that he is indeed a captive. Ma is his only connection to the real world and the information she provides is limited. When Jack discovers that the real world is waiting outside his door, he is frightened, confused and almost frozen. He doesn't understand any form of social convention and is befuddled by meeting other people. It's hard to imagine a child like Jack, but Donoghue creates in Jack a plucky and winsome boy who is new to every experience and nuance of the world. Jack tries to make sense of things he has never seen, but often, he explains to us, these new things can be ominous and even at times painful. As Ma moves further and further into the world, Jack is forced to do the same and he longs for the stability and quiet that his old room has come to represent.
The relationship between Jack and his mother is an amazing thing to read about. Despite being held captive, Ma manages to give Jack a lot of normalcy and routine, and it's very clear that she considers him her reason for life. I can imagine that spending your entire existence locked in a room with a five-year-old could become frustrating and maddening, but Jack's mother never loses patience with her son's endless questions and speculations, and later she gently helps ease him into the world she left behind. Their relationship is very symbiotic and remains static throughout the story. No matter how things change and who comes in to the picture, it's really only Jack and Ma, side by side against the world. The relationship between Jack and his mother is all-sustaining and integral to both, and as Jack becomes more aware, it becomes the only thing that matters. There is an innocence in Jack that feels very organic, and throughout the story of Jack's awakening, I was able to see not only the differences between Jack and other boys, but also the similarities.
This story had a very fluid feel and seeing things from Jack's perspective enabled me to get a handle on the story that wouldn't have been possible in any other narrative structure. Though the kidnapping and captivity was the center stage drama, most of the book dealt with the daily relationship between Jack and his mother, and because of that, the story was a rather quiet affair. At certain points in the story, Jack takes in some very adult conversations, but instead of digesting them and understanding them, he begins to frame them into terms that a five-year-old can understand and ponder. In this way, the story gained a fullness and clued the reader into just how Ma was dealing with the situations at hand, and allowed Jack to begin to comprehend that life outside his room was an entirely different animal.
I was very impressed with what Donoghue managed in this book. Reading the story from Jack's perspective was almost more harrowing and intriguing than I could stand because he had no way of judging malice and intent due to his sheltered upbringing. I truly think the author outdid herself here in terms of a moving plot, a winsome narrator and a dynamic writing style, and think many readers will fall in love with Jack, just as I did. If you can get your hands on a copy of this book, I do advise reading it. Jack's unique voice and life will be something that you won't easily forget. Highly recommended!