Review: Room, by Emma Donoghue

>>Published: September 2010

>>Finally got around to it: October 2010

In recent weeks, thanks to the glut of the publishing industry’s awards season, several books have been on everybody’s lips. The two that seem to be going back and forth across the headlines like two dancers that just won’t leave the floor when the lights come on are Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and Emma Donoghue’s Room. And since I have next to no desire to read the Oprah-endorsed juggernaut that is Freedom (partially because it really has such a fugly cover. I mean seriously, it looks like baby’s first Photoshop job gone viciously wrong), I threw my cards in with Room and decided to see what the epic-tier fuss was all about.

Short answer? It’s very good, definitely unique, distressing beyond words and to use a current en vogue term that just won’t go away, unputdownable. With that said, it’s also not entirely satisfying.

A little bit more detail you say? The book is an amazing achievement and definitely deserving of it’s many accolades—for the authorial risk more than anything—but it is not without its faults. The most obvious of which was the narrator’s voice.

It was a ballsy move to put the emotional entry point of the book in the mind of its five-year-old protagonist, Jack, and in most cases there is no other way I could imagine the book being told and being as effective, but it was an uphill climb into that mindset. I never felt lost in the plot, so to speak. Of course it’s not possible to transpose yourself into just any character, setting or plot, but with Room I never left the lobby—always watching from afar, like the story was being dictated rather than told. I’m not sure if that distinction is clear, but it’s the best I’ve got for the moment. More to the point, the child felt, well… robotic. His mannerisms and inquisitive nature in any given moment, in spite of the sheltered world apart from reality his mom had created for him, never felt genuine. This is more a problem with how it was written than with the idea of running with the child narrator. Again, it is not written poorly by any stretch of the imagination, but neither is it written convincingly. At least not for this reader. Jack’s moments of excitement and elation felt triggered in such perfunctory ways as to be more annoying than relatable.

Would I recommend the book? Absolutely. It’s a gut wrenching, painfully disturbing book, but entirely worthwhile and eye opening in many ways. Most likely some will read this and cry foul, wanting to tell me that I’ve missed some crucial element in my reading, but if I have to be honest, I can think of so many books this year from Canadian authors that have snagged me with their writing and ideas in a way that Room simply never managed to do. Maybe this review is a product of the hype. It’s possible, like I suspect would happen with Freedom at this point, that my expectations were too high going into the book. Whether or not that changed anything isn’t the point, because when all is said and done, I was left wishing so many scenes had been handled in an incrementally different manner. Enough of those increments add up to something substantial, and that’s why Room failed to convince me that it was anything more than an engaging, often uncomfortable, sometimes enlightening experience.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Room, by Emma Donoghue

  1. I totally disagree about the narrator's voice. For me, that was the best part of the book. Jack isn't just any five-year-old kid. He's a five-year-old whose entire world is an 11'x11' room, in which Room is real and everything else is Outer Space or TV. His reactions to anything unfamiliar are understandably out of proportion, and remember: he's just discovering that his entire life has been a lie. We can't have the same expectations of him that we'd have of a normal five-year-old narrator.

  2. I agree with you completely, but I think I had a difficult time accepting that the mother would have been able to keep him as sheltered as she had for so long – even though those years are still so formative and manipulable, the moments with Old Nick were so aggressively disturbing that, for me, it made Jack's nature somewhat unbelievable. I know it's his entire world, but I guess even at the age of five I would imagine that a reactionary, wall-ed up persona would start to emerge, where it wouldn't just be the mother protecting him, but Jack also protecting himself. Again, I know he's just five, but I kept thinking there was something missing in his behaviour – be it instinct or otherwise. I just couldn't break away from that mindset, much as I tried.

    Still loved the book, still think everyone who can should absolutely read it, but I couldn't write my responses without addressing that, as for me it was strong enough that it kept me from totally investing in the book as I would have liked to.

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