I had just finished reading this unique love story about a mother and her child when the story of the 10-year enslavement of three young women in Cleveland broke in the news, giving added poignancy to Donoghue’s captivating tale.
Jack is a five year old boy who lives with his mother (“Ma”) in an 11 by 11 foot room (“Room”). He knows nothing of the world (“Outside”) except what he hears and sees in his handful of books and occasional television shows, but they are mere characters in a story to him. Jack’s entire existence is shaped by his resourceful mother and the daily routines she organizes for him of crafts, learning, book reading, cooking, eating, exercising and unadulterated love. He accepts the four walls that surround him, the skylight that gives him glimpses of the Sun and Moon, the Wardrobe where he hides when “Old Nick” visits his mother, and is safe and loved and content.
Jack is our narrator, and it is only slowly, through his five-year-old observations, that we begin to realize that Jack and his mother are captives of the man his mother has dubbed “Old Nick,” after the devil. She was kidnapped at age 19 and knew nothing but the room she is locked into and the man’s repeated rapes until Jack was born and gave her a reason to survive and eventually plot their escape. Donoghue’s choice of using Jack as her narrator is absolutely brilliant; she manages to keep his voice consistently genuine and believable, and we immediately love Jack and sympathize with his fear of “Outside” as much as we are rooting for Ma’s plotting to succeed.
It is once they are in the “Outside” that the real drama begins, as both mother and child need to create a new existence that both preserves and changes the “oneness” that has kept them alive all these years. We travel with Ma and Jack from their one-room existence to a slow, enlightening and also terrifying acclimation to the world outside, and Donoghue writes so artfully that one can literally feel the world expanding around oneself.
Despite the horrifying subject of this story, Room is in fact a beautiful novel of love, trust, humor, creativity, and freedom at its most profound.