Am I the last person to get around to reading Room by Emma Donoghue? Probably, but in case you are actually the last person, please be aware that this review contains some spoilers after the first couple of paragraphs.
Room was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize and was on many of the Best Books of 2010 lists. It took me so long to read it because of the subject matter: a five-year-old boy’s knowing nothing about the outside world because he has grown up imprisoned in a single room for his entire life. The author has been quoted as saying that the idea for the novel was triggered by news reports about the actual case of an Austrian woman, Elisabeth Fritzl, imprisoned by her father along with three of the seven children he fathered by raping her, so that led some to believe that the book would resemble a sensational true crime story. But while the initial idea may have come from the news story, the novel is the author’s imagining the internal dialogue of a boy who experiences such a dramatic upheaval in his life. Here is author Emma Donoghue in an interview with The Guardian:
The newspaper reports of Felix Fritzl [Elisabeth’s son], aged five, emerging into a world he didn’t know about, put the idea into my head. That notion of the wide-eyed child emerging into the world like a Martian coming to Earth: it seized me.
Five-year-old Jack — who is deliberately given the name of the hero of so many folk tales — is the hero of this story, and events are all related from his point of view. The narrative voice reminded some readers of the autistic boy-hero of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. It reminded me of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, in which the narrator also enters a whole new world and becomes progressively better at interpreting it as the book goes along.
It’s horrifying to think of how Jack’s mother has to endure her captivity and raise a child, but seeing her through Jack’s eyes removes any whiff of creepy voyeurism or true-crime titillation. To Jack, his mother is just Ma, who is always there. Of course, she is always there. He doesn’t see anything strange about their situation; to him it is normal. But at the start of the book he has turned five, and Jack is finally old enough to play the key role in his mother’s dangerous escape plan.
When it works, suddenly they are in the Outside, that Jack didn’t even know existed, and they are separated for the first time. Jack’s structured routine and rituals fall away, although they and Ma were so recently his whole world. He worriedly watches his mother adjust to a new life outside their exclusive circle of two and cautiously learns his own way forward in this brave new world.
Other opinions about Room ( mostly good):
Bibliophile by the Sea
Jen’s Book Thoughts (audiobook review)
Steph & Tony Investigate!
A Worn Path
Read The New York Times review of Room.