The Short Version: Jack and his Ma live in Room. Room is Jack’s entire world – but what he doesn’t realize is that there’s an entire world beyond Room’s walls. His mother was kidnapped in college and has been locked in Room for the last seven years. Finally, shortly after Jack’s fifth birthday, they decide to try for an escape – but the challenge of re-entering the real world is more than they realize.
The Review: Let’s get three things out of the way right off the bat. One, Jack’s narrative voice is not as bothersome as you were expecting it to be. Two, the story itself is as uncomfortable as you think it will be. Three, no – the story isn’t as good as everyone has made it out to be.
I had the highest hopes for this book when I first started hearing about it. Those hopes were tempered a bit upon the reading, mainly because this is a good book that strives for but does not achieve greatness. It is also, in many ways, a potboiler disguised as literature.
I say this because it reads, in a way, like an ‘airport novel’ – everyone I’ve talked to talks about how they just feel this urge to stay up and push through the book. And I felt the same way. It is engrossing on a very basic level and that’s pretty awesome. Seriously, the ability to pull your readers in and propel them forward in such a way is an underrated talent. It gets scoffed at because of writers like Dan Brown… but it’s actually quite hard to do. Think about how many books you read where the pace drags, where there’s a lull in the action, etc. Rare is the book that just takes off and carries you along for the ride.
The child narrator was also a big risk – but Donoghue takes a middle road that makes it work. Jack speaks with a child’s voice… but never seems like a five-year-old. This is attributed to Ma having worked tirelessly to teach him. It’s commented upon once they get out into the real world, when Jack begins to engage with other children his own age. He’s got an incredible vocabulary and is whip-smart – but, of course, he’s socially retarded from having only ever encountered two other human beings (and really only ever spent any true time with Ma). This fine line – of getting away with a ‘smart’ child narrator – works for most of the novel and is only frustrating in bursts. Most of the bursts come not from having to listen to a five-year-old but rather from the slips where Donoghue seems to want to convey something else, something adult, but can’t quite do so in the constraints she’s set up for herself. So instead of struggling, she just breaks her own rules for a moment. It can be jarring to hear a five-year-old, even a really really smart one (and I was a really smart one. This is not bragging, I know this – I was reading Newsweek at three, its a family legend), use words that you barely hear most adults use.
That was probably the most frustrating part of the entire book. That and, in the end, I didn’t care. That’s a horrible thing to say, I know, but it’s true. The story is horrifying – as it has been in the terrible headlines over the last few years – but something about it, perhaps using Jack’s limited worldview as our perspective, makes it less-than-bad. It softens the horror and as a result deadens the life of the story.
I’m also not entirely convinced by Ma. She just seems too strong for most of the novel – her TV interview in particualr – but then the sudden twist to her story (which I won’t give away) pops up and I literally put the book down and said “What?!” because it just didn’t seem to fit with the character we’d been shown. The character we’d come to believe acted in a certain way and believed in certain things just up and did something completely out-of-character – and it wrecks the faith we have in the story. These contradictions are what weaken the story and make it less-than-good.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. It’s a good 3.5, on the 4 side of 3.5, but a 3.5 nonetheless. Yes, the nearly breathless pacing of the story makes it so that you don’t have time, really, to notice the problems… but the problems are still there. They’re large ones, too – unavoidable ones, when you really start to think about them. This book might’ve been better as a novella, ending with Jack’s frantic escape from Room. The second half, while a fascinating riff on the ‘wild boy comes to society’ story, was just a little flat. It didn’t live up to the first half and seemed a little tired. Plus, the novel seemed to never want to end – I wanted it done about fifty pages before it actually was, despite the pace.