On the back cover of Room by Emma Donoghue, I read: ‘To five-year-old Jack, Room is the world…’ Far from enticing me, this sentence left me feeling sceptical. Tossing the novel from one hand to the other, I wondered how the exploration of one room could entertain me for over 300 pages. Surely Donoghue was just reusing the ideas outlined in Plato’s Cave Allegory and transferring them into a modern context? However, my obnoxious presumptions were challenged, as I found Donoghue’s novel to be far more than the examination of the single question: What is reality? Donoghue’s novel is a web which addresses this question, whilst beautifully intertwining its exploration with ideas of child-development, motherhood and survival. Room is a restrictive, confined setting, but the ideas that Donoghue presents are far reaching.
The novel opens with the captivating voice of young Jack, saying, ‘Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra’. Jack is born and raised in a space measuring 12 foot by 12 foot and consequently, everything is singular and personified in his world. His narrative language of cataloguing cleverly reflects the confines of his existence, adding to the story’s authenticity. The reasons for Jack’s unusual situation are left enticingly unanswered for the first few chapters of the novel. Gradually and skilfully, Donoghue reveals that Jack’s Ma was abducted 7 years earlier and that Jack is the result of the repeated rapes inflicted on Ma by her captor. In an attempt to protect her son, Ma does not tell Jack that there is a world outside Room.
Jack is a compelling character and his love for Ma is heart-warming, as he describes how he is ‘a human but…a me-and-Ma as well’. However, perhaps at points the intimacy of the novel is unnerving, as Ma still breastfeeds her 5-year-old son. The private world of Room is claustrophobic and as an onlooker, I sometimes felt intrusive. Aligned with the narrator Jack, I became a captive also and began to question the smallness of my own sense of reality.
However, in the second half of the novel, Donoghue releases both the characters and the reader, into the outside world. Understandably, initially Jack is weary and wants to return to the life that he understands. Jack has only ever experienced Room and similarly, in Plato’s Cave Allegory, the people inside the cave have only ever seen shadows on the walls. Plato describes how if one were to escape this shadow-reality, at first their ‘eyes would be dazzled’. This is precisely what happens to Jack, as he is dazzled by the vastness of reality.
This novel disappointed me on only one account. Once in the world, Jack’s response to the outside world is the focus and the Ma-and-Jack relationship is diluted. The exploration of their bond dominated the first half of the novel and I wanted to know more about the strains placed on them, as their two-person world fell apart. How did they react to Outside together, in relationship, as a pair?
Gradually, Jack begins to enjoy Outside, showing that, as a 5-year-old, he is easier to repair and remould than Ma. When he returns to Room for one last time, Jack describes it as ‘a crater, a hole where something happened’. Having escaped the ‘shadow-reality’ of Room, Jack’s reaction reflects Plato’s ideas. Plato suggests that after being exposed to the sun – the illuminating light of reality – being ‘replaced in his old situation’ one would find ‘his eyes full of darkness’. Jack’s knowledge of true reality has falsified the reality of Room and he cannot return to ignorance.
An interesting combination of psychological and philosophical concepts, this novel challenges one’s inherent perceptions, by shaking societal and cultural foundations. There is life on every page – a vivacity which remained with me for days after having read Room. I challenge anyone to remain unmoved by this book, which, for its duration, became part of my lived experience.
by Emma Forbes