The basic premise of Room is centred around a mother and son who are held captive in a single room. Of course, this premise is not basic at all, and it’s quite hard to wrap your mind around just how difficult such an existence must be.
Jack is five years old and was born in ‘Room’. His narration of this tale made it quite difficult for me to get into the book at first – it felt frustratingly babyish, and to be honest, none of the five year olds I know speak that way. Then again, none of the five year olds I know have spent their entire existence without any external stimuli other than their mothers’ company and limited access to television.
We never find out the real name of Jack’s mother, who is referred to only as ‘Ma’, or the identity of the man who kidnapped her and later fathered Jack (known to Jack as ‘Old Nick’), and the child is certainly the focus of the novel. We do gain some insight into his mother’s experiences and feelings, but it is generally as perceived by Jack. In a way, this made me feel more sympathetic towards her, as not only had she lost her freedom, but also her identity as anyone other than Jack’s mother.
It’s hard to say it’s an enjoyable read, given the subject matter, but it is certainly a fascinating look into maternal devotion and the mother-child relationship. ‘Ma’ does everything in her power to ensure that Jack does not realise how abhorrent his lifestyle is, and I was amazed by all the little activities that were conjured up to pass the time, as well as the measures she puts in place to try and preserve his health. It may seem cruel at first that he is condemned to sleep in ‘Wardrobe’ but this is done to keep him out of sight, and hopefully mind, of her nocturnal visitor, their captor, and it may seem disturbing or shocking to read about a five year old breastfeeding, but we sense her discomfort too, and realise that this is simply a way to boost Jack’s immune system. Her resolve is seemingly endless when it comes to keeping Jack safe, but O’Donoghue also successfully conveys the frustration and despair that ‘Ma’ feels at having to deal with this situation at all.
I don’t want to give too much away in terms of how the novel progresses, but it is impressive in it’s understated emotion and brims with psychological insight into how such an experience might shape a mother and child. It’s not exactly the kind of book I’d call a holiday beach read, though once I got past my initial dislike of Jack’s narration I raced through it, but it is certainly one I would recommend reading.
My copy of Room was published by Picador in 2011.