Book Review

Much-anticipated tale of captivity delivers

By Liz Raftery
September 15, 2010

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"Room,’’ a riveting, powerful novel from Irish writer Emma Donoghue, tells the story of a 26-year-old woman who has been held captive in a locked room for seven years. The book is told from the point of view of her son, 5-year-old Jack, who calls this home “Room’’ and knows nothing of the world outside its soundproof walls. Jack sleeps in a wardrobe at night and entertains himself with various imaginary games that, while perfectly normal to him, are dismal to the reader.

One of the most highly anticipated books of autumn, “Room’’ deserves all the praise it’s received ahead of its release, including recently being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. An emotionally draining read, yet at the same time impossible to put down, it has all the makings of a modern classic.

Donoghue’s inventive storytelling is flawless and absorbing. She has a fantastic ability to build tension in scenes where most of the action takes place in the 12-by-12 room where her central characters reside. Her writing has pulse-pounding sequences that cause the reader’s eyes to race over the pages to find out what happens next.

As a narrator, Jack’s naivete about his situation and the world at large alternates between being endearing and heartbreaking. Out of necessity, his mother (known only as Ma; we never learn her real name) has modified reality to make the best of their circumstances, telling him, for instance, that people on television aren’t real. “Houses are like lots of Rooms stuck together,’’ he thinks one day while watching a program. “TV persons stay in them mostly but sometimes they go in their outsides and weather happens to them.’’

Though Donoghue adequately captures the under-developed speech patterns, phrasing, and conceptualization of a kindergarten-age protagonist (not to mention one who has never had formal schooling), she is careful not to make Jack’s narrative voice cutesy or irritating. In fact, the technique often has the opposite effect. An innately intelligent boy, his curiosity about life outside of Room is what propels the story along. Horrific discoveries about his mother’s kidnapping and captivity, and realizations about the world at large, are made even more jarring and moving as the reader discovers them through the (often uncomprehending or overwhelmed) eyes of Jack. “Outside has everything. Whenever I think of a thing now like skis or fireworks or islands or elevators or yo-yos, I have to remember they’re real, they’re actually happening in Outside all together. It makes my head tired . . . though, me and Ma, we’re the only ones not there. Are we still real?’’

“Room’’ is essentially, though not explicitly, divided into two sections (to elaborate would require spoiling a central plot point), and while Donoghue’s tone shifts from one to the other, the writing is equally riveting in each. The book works on many levels. On the surface, it’s a suspense novel about kidnapping victims and their attempts to escape their confinement. It’s also a compelling tale about a mother’s love for her child, the lengths she’ll go to in order to protect him, and the co-dependence that often develops between parents and their children. Underpinning all of these, Donoghue manages to work in subtle commentary about some of the more absurd aspects of our modern consumer culture, family dynamics, and the phenomenon of overnight celebrity.

Frequent references to popular songs and television shows will probably make the book feel a bit dated in years to come, but its central storyline and emotional resonance are timeless. “Room’’ is likely to haunt readers for days, if not longer. It is, hands down, one of the best books of the year.

Liz Raftery, a freelance writer based in New York, can be reached at

ROOM By Emma Donoghue

Little, Brown and Co., 321 pp., $24.99