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Review of ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma DonoghueI’ve just finished ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue and it was outstanding.  I couldn’t imagine quite how a whole book written from the point of view of a five year old boy would read, but the character of Jack is so engaging and so funny that you want to stay with him, through good times and (very) bad.  The novel uses one of my favourite techniques, that of the unreliable narrator (‘Engleby’ by Sebastian Faulks also has an unreliable narrator).  It’s a tricky feat to pull off; you must be able to describe what is going on for the reader through the misunderstandings of the narrator.  Through Jack’s thoughts and stories about his mother we get a marvellous picture of an amazing woman who brings up her son while incarcerated by a kidnapper.  She creates an imaginary world for him that he believes is real, and for the first half of the book objects like Wardrobe and Rug are hugely important friends for Jack and almost become extra characters in the book.  Jack describes games he and his mother play and most are educational or fun, like Phys Ed.  But then there are games like Scream, which is just another play session for Jack, but we realise with horror that this is one of the ways Ma is signalling, with less and less hope, for help.

Donoghue creates an entirely new universe for Jack, and for us, and when he finally emerges into the Outside we feel just like him – scared, blinking, and confused, seeing the world with new eyes.  This is the skill of ‘Room’, and of literature as a whole.  To take us elsewhere and return us with a new way of seeing.

I’ve just visited to see the interactive plan of Room.  It was quite odd seeing it for real and I actually feel quite shocked because in a very small and virtual way I’ve spent time there…

Writers’ Notes

  • There’s so much I can learn about writing from this book, but the main thing that really stands out is the voice of the narrator.  Jack is so engaging that you just want to spend time with him in his world, even though that world is, for us, horrendous.
  • Donoghue approaches her subject from a fresh, original viewpoint, taking us right inside Jack’s tiny world.
  • Minor characters such as Grandma and Steppa are wonderfully drawn.  They are very human with their own agendas, their efforts to do right and their faults.
  • I love how Donogue can describe momentous things with just a few words.  When Ma stares, or puts her head in her hands, or her eyes go shiny – we understand, without needing to be told more.  With the right words you can write little but say so much.

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