To five-year-old Jack, his entire world measures approximately 12 feet x 12 feet. To him, it’s home. To his Ma, it’s a prison, kidnapped as she was seven years earlier. Born in captivity, Jack knows no different as Ma teaches him to play, learn, eat and sleep within the confines of the ‘room’.
Ma (we never learn her real name), through ingenuity and the need to keep herself sane, has created an almost playful environment for her son. And it is Jack in a box who narrates the story – we see his world through his eyes and his perspective.
Constantly reading the same five books or playing the same games is generally fun for the boy, the make believe of the TV planet provides endless fascination (or at least would do if Ma did not restrict viewing to one hour a day). Even sleeping in the wardrobe when Old Nick (their captor) turns up provides a sense of adventure.
Room is written from Jack’s perspective and understanding. But what is also apparent is Ma’s slow disintegration. This may be the only thing Jack knows, but Ma was a 19 year-old student when she was abducted.
So, not long after he turns five, Ma plans their escape.
Room is a book that has polarised opinion. On first reading (and knowing nothing about it), the book had, initially, a fairly strong emotional punch that slowly faded away as the book progressed. Jack’s expressions and takes on the things around him start to become too cutesy and pat.
On second reading, there’s no emotional punch, with the second half of the book losing all sense of urgency. It becomes formulaic. Like the toy, wind it up and you know Jack pops out of the box – as long as the batteries aren’t dead.
Emma Donoghue’s novel was favourite to collect the Man Booker Prize in 2010 but instead lost out to Howard Jacobson and The Finkler Question (in my opinion, the right call).