I had been reading and hearing nothing but good things about Room, so I finally decided to see what the hype was all about. My reading pleasure was slightly tainted when the library gave me one week to read it. The book is that popular with the public! However, my friend Paula assured me that it was a quick read. This was not the case. Although I was able to finish the book in one week, it was out of sheer pride and stubbornness. I wanted to stop reading it numerous times, and if the library had given me longer than a week, I would not have finished it as quickly. I was determined, though, and didn't supplement my reading with more enjoyable titles. It didn't make sense to write a negative review of such a highly praised novel without making the extreme effort to finish the blasted thing.
If it wasn't apparent already, I didn't enjoy Room. I had been hearing things like "riveting," "realistic," "suspenseful," and "easily finished in a single reading." This was not the case. Everything in the book was predictable, even the grand finale. I sincerely mean everything too. Ask me about any "shocking" detail, and I will tell you when I knew that incident or detail was going to be revealed. Because of the predictability of Room, the book dragged on and on. The most mundane details that were supposed to tug at the readers' heartstrings had me yawning in boredom. Sigh. Jack is drinking from his mom's breasts again. Jack's watching Dora again. Etc. It was really a chore to finish a book that had no plot. It was a character driven piece, but when you can't relate to the characters, there's really nothing to care about other than the idea behind the book.
The idea behind Room is compelling and readers should be aware of it. The plot is inspired by the true story of Elisabeth Fritzl, an Austrian woman imprisoned by her father for twenty-four years. One of her sons, five year old Felix, was the inspiration for the protagonist Jack. Similar captivity stories that inspired this piece include the cases of Jaycee Lee Dugard, a woman from California, and Natascha Kampusch, another Austrian woman who later became an Austrian talk show host. Room may be fiction, but it was inspired by true events. What was described has happened and probably is still happening to this day. This knowledge and understanding alone does not make the book worthy of all the praise it's receiving. Actually, it puts more pressure on author Emma Donoghue to give justice and credence to the crimes committed against these women and their children. This was an opportunity to vindicate the victims, and I was sorely disappointed.
In all honesty, I didn't know much about these cases until after reading the novel. I was so disappointed by the writing that I had to understand Donoghue's inspiration behind Room. To a certain degree, Room succeeded by making me more aware of threats against women and children. I can't imagine the fear that this book stirs in anyone that has children, but I can better understand the need to protect the innocent from monsters that blend in with society. As a piece of fiction, though, Room failed.
The setting is an American city. We don't really know what city, but the emphasis on American coins, references to a new president, and other American quirks alert us to this country. That's not really important, though. What's important is that the family is being held captive in a garden shed fitted with soundproofed cork, lead-lined walls, and a coded metal security door. Only one person "visits" them, a man known by the nickname “Old Nick.” The specific dimensions of the room measures 11x11. This is not the only setting revealed in the book, but it is the most significant, which is why the title of the book is "Room."
As already mentioned, the story/plot mimics the real-life accounts of women held captive against their will. The significance of children and Jack's role in the novel is to show that the story affects other innocents born in captivity. It also minimizes the amount of brutality the author depicts through her writing. Most of the plot is about how "Ma," we never learn her name, and Jack have survived their captivity and continue to survive it. They desperately seek an ounce of normalcy in an inhumane and obviously not normal situation. Everyday activities take on new meaning in the confined spaces of Room. Jack "goes to school" and has lessons on reading, memorization, measurements, mathematics, and one of his most favorite classes, gym. All the activities are told from Jack's perspective as he is the narrator of this story. Ma's struggles don't go unnoticed, though, because Jack is a very astute and intelligent five-year old boy. He understands Ma's situation without even realizing it.
There are two serious issues I have with this story:
1. The narrator Jack
2. The descriptions of everyday activities that drive the nonexistent plot and character development, an aspect that suffered because of the weak point of view.
Jack is an unreliable narrator. This is not a bad concept as an unreliable narrator can add a lot of depth, mystery, and intrigue to a fictional work. In this case, viewing the whole situation from Jack's eyes just "watered-down" the experiences of these women. Donoghue tries to make up for this folly by juxtaposing points of childish innocence with the actual horrors of Jack's reality, an aspect that Jack can't always understand but the reader can. In order to present this simultaneous perspective, Donoghue sacrifices the integrity of her narrator. Jack does not talk like a young child who's been cut off from the world his entire young life (five years). He does act like a little kid, often imbuing human qualities and traits to nonhuman objects, such as "Plant" being his friend and the "Sun" being God, etc. At the same time that he uses and thinks what I call "baby talk," he can understand adult concepts such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or sing along to music well beyond the comprehension of a five year old. Then, the horrendous speech takes over, and the reader is repeatedly bashed over the head with the unknown depths of children's shows such as Dora the Explorer and Spongebob Squarepants. Jack is a contradiction. He doesn't understand his life, yet he does. There are moments of poignant awareness that deny Jack's innocence and age restriction. Donoghue tries to give the reader the best of both worlds through Jack: the innocent child perspective and the adult understanding of the horrors of Ma's and Jack's lives. By doing this, she sacrificed the connection between the reader and the characters.
Considering that nothing ever happens in the book save for about halfway through, Room is purely character driven. Unfortunately, the most interesting character, Ma, remains unamed throughout the story while being filtered through the eyes of her annoying son. The quality that made him annoying was the very style that everyone praises-- the constant reliance on his "baby talk." After ten pages, I was ready to scream. It was too contrived for my tastes. I craved moments of silence when Jack wasn't talking or thinking while other dialog occurred. I'm not a fan of the first person perspective, so add this to the unique style of Jack, and the book was doomed to be an unsatisfying read. If Donoghue had been more crafty with the use of the almost unintelligible "baby talk" and five-year old approach to the story, it might have worked. However, she tried to do too much with one character.
There are numerous themes and motifs sprinkled throughout the entire novel. The main one is that love conquers anything. No matter what happens in life, love makes pain, trauma, and in this case imprisonment, worth bearing. Of course the love that Donoghue highlights is between a mother and her child. Other themes include survival at all costs, acclimating to a new existence, effects the public, especially the paparazzi, have on the development of an individual's psyche, and the unknown strengths of a young hero. Only two themes stood out as absolutely necessary-- love and survival versus despair. A lot of the additional themes were thrown in as a way of making Jack's world right and giving readers the happy ending they wanted.
There weren't a lot of unique literary devices used other than metaphors, allusions, similes, and analogies. The stylistic quality that made it different from other novels was the point of view, Jack's. Ironically enough, this was the aspect that ruined Room for me.
I'm unclear as to the message/purpose of this piece. On one hand, I felt that Donoghue wanted to share how the real life situations of captive women affected her profoundly and deeply enough to write a fictional story about it. She wanted to "get the word out there" to a larger audience, and she felt that a fictional story was the best device. On the other hand, I feel like she exploited what these women went through for her own capitalist gains. She made their story more bearable to read by filtering it through the eyes of a young child. She wrote for a mass audience and to make a name for herself as a writer.
In order to share their story, the women loss their voices. Ma isn't even named in the novel, thus denying her a real identity outside of her societal role. At the same time, the women's stories became more horrifying because innocent children were harmed, young people who rely on others for protection. I didn't mind this emphasis, and do think that it's an important part of all the news articles. At the same time, I wanted to understand more about the women who were innocent victims in each case too. I didn't like how it had to be an either/or perspective rather than a shared experience between woman and child, which a third person narrative would have illustrated better. Finally, "watering down" any atrocity annoys me. You can't be afraid to see and understand the truth no matter how ugly it is.
I've never read anything by this author before, and I'm nervous to try again. If she relies on the "sensational" to make her characters and story more interesting, then no thank you. I'm not interested in contrived literary techniques. It shows that her writing skills and talents for telling a story are desperately wanting. A writer shouldn't rely on a gimmick to sell a story. The actual contents of the book need to be strong enough to stand on its own. I've never read anything like Room before, unless you count Misery. After reading Room, I'm tired of the entire concept. I would rather read the news articles and true-life accounts of this situation as told by the victims rather than a fictional retelling.
Overall, there's pros and cons to reading this novel.
Do I regret reading this book? A little. Would I read it again? Never! Still, it's not the worst piece of writing that I've read, and I do give credit to what the author attempted. I would recommend Room to young adults because they are the target audience. Based on the reviews, though, people of all ages might enjoy it as long as the narrative voice doesn't drive them batty like it did me.
For those of you looking for a funny anecdote, I was reading and exclaiming at the same time when my husband asked me what was wrong. I gave him the book, and he read a few pages. Eventually, he looked up and shook his head in disbelief. "Are you kidding me," he asked before walking away. No, I'm not. The narrator is that distracting and annoying. Be prepared for over 300 pages of gibberish child language.
What did you think of this review?