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Saturday, February 19th, 2011
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by Emma Donoghue

Freedom in Captivity

A review by Heidi Mager

Any mother or father can tell you that the love for a child and the drive to protect them, to shield them from everything harmful and ugly, is the most powerful force in the universe. It's unthinkable that anything should taint the innocence of your precious tot, and the tireless effort you expend to keep him or her from harm is nothing less than super-human. But, of all the dark thoughts that can haunt a parent's waking hours, kidnapping and abuse are the pinnacle of horror.

Room, by Emma Donoghue, is a poignant story of a mother's love and a child's resilience, told from the viewpoint of five-year-old Jack, a boy born of sexual abuse. Seven years earlier, at the age of 19, Jack's mother was kidnapped from in front of her university. Now, she and Jack live in the titular Room, an 11-by-11-foot dwelling, modified by her captor, Old Nick, into a highly secure, foam-insulated prison, soundproofed with a layer of lead.

Jack is bright -- highly inquisitive and imaginative -- and from the first sentence the reader is charmed by the boy's first-person perspective. The underlying horrors of their existence are thrown into sharp relief against the innocent joy that the child takes in their everyday routine.

We have thousands of things to do every morning, like give Plant a cup of water in Sink for no spilling, then put her back on her saucer on Dresser.
Within their small space, Jack and Ma devote every ounce of energy to each other, and their days are surprisingly full, occupied with games, stories (Jack becomes Prince JackerJack in Ma's version of several fairy tales), Scream (once per day they scream as loud and long as they can), Phys Ed, and only a little TV so that their brains don't turn to mush (but Dora the Explorer is Jack's best friend).

Their world is not only small, but almost completely enclosed, as well. Door has a special keypad that controls access to Room and beeps whenever Old Nick comes in. Only through Skylight can they see slices of God's Yellow Face and God's Sleeping Face -- there are no other windows. Ma sleeps in Bed under Duvet, but Jack sleeps in Wardrobe, snuggly with Blanket, to be safely out of view should Old Nick decide to visit in the night. Everything outside of Room is Outer Space, and though they have a television, no distinction is given to the difference between "pretend" and "real." Jack exists content with the certainty that Room and Old Nick are the extent of the universe.

Women aren't real like Ma is, and girls and boys not either. Men aren't real except Old Nick, and I'm not actually sure if he's real for real. Maybe half? He brings groceries and Sundaytreat and disappears the trash, but he's not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats....I think Ma doesn't like to talk about him in case he gets realer.
Action-wise, you might think that the story, much of which doesn't leave the opening setting, would get stale. How long can rocking in Rocker and running in circles on Rug stay compelling? But the thread of tension never breaks, due in part to Donoghue being no stranger to shock factor. She guides us with an unapologetic hand through scenes where Jack "has some" (his name for nursing, since he's still breastfeeding; "There was no reason to stop," Ma would say later) and others where he passes the time during Old Nick's visits.

When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers. Tonight it's 217 creaks. I always have to count until he makes that gaspy sound and stops. I don't know what would happen if I didn't count, because I always do.
The subject matter of Room immediately recalls the tragic details of news reports from around the world -- children in captivity, repeatedly raped and impregnated, held for years on end. Donoghue uses the fiction form to mold these elements ripped from the headlines, but makes the story her own through Jack's unique voice and her ability to challenge the reader while maintaining an emotionally resonant and suspenseful narrative.

Reading Room is an experience that you'll never forget. It's difficult to imagine a more poignant portrait of two lives -- all splashed with primary colors but deeply shadowed by pain and anguish. Your feelings are stretched so thin that at points, you're not sure if you can keep reading through to the end. Yet, you're compelled to, driven by the hope for survival and redemption, and, ultimately, you arrive, profoundly affected. Author Audrey Niffenegger sums it up perfectly:

Room is a book to read in one sitting. When it's over you look up: the world looks the same but you are somehow different and that feeling lingers for days.

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