I know that I tend to read depressing books, but I seem to be on an especially depressing tear of late. The last few books I have read have been about the following: a woman dying a terrible death from cancer, a girl who disappeared, conjoined girl twins who die, a hermaphrodite, another girl who disappears, a young mother whose baby dies of SIDS, and a woman who so desires to be the librarian of her own night bookmobile that she gives her life to do so. Jeez.
Room, by Emma Donoghue, may take the cake, though. It is about a woman who was abducted at age 19 and confined to a 12×12 shed for 7 years, along with the son she gave birth to in captivity. Definitely a depressing, ripped-from-the-headlines premise. But I am so glad I read Room – it's an excellent book.
Ma (whose name we never learn), spends the first five years of her son Jack's life protecting him from knowing about the circumstances in which they live. The first third or so of Room explores the lengths Ma goes to to create a joyful, stimulating, and comforting life in their prison of a home. Jack, who narrates the book, takes the reader through typical days in Room, which include running laps on Rug, feeding Plant, creating toys out of recycled trash, looking through Skylight, reading one of his five books, and sleeping in Wardrobe. Ma has given in to her captor's nightly visits with the resignation and veneer of a Stepford wife, as she explains after their escape, in exchange for his promise that he will never set eyes on her son (she is careful never to acknowledge him as a parent).
Jack is precocious and smart, but he is also a boy who has never set foot on the earth or spoken to a single human being other than his mother. Once he and Ma make it Outside, his world becomes overwhelmingly confusing, with sensory overload and a literal collapse of his worldview. Donoghue's exploration of how Jack and Ma re-enter (well, "enter" is more appropriate for Jack) society, and how they are received by an intrusively curious American public, is riveting.
Room is an exhilarating, captivating and moving book, and reflects Donoghue's immense creativity and her compassion for her two main characters. Sometimes I was frustrated by Ma's seeming insensitivity to Jack's many, many questions and fears upon leaving Room, but I think that insensitivity is probably realistic. Ma is human, after all, and has the right to care for herself and her own needs after so many years of protecting and servicing (literally) others.
I don't want to say much more, for doing so might deny others the full impact of reading Room. I know, the topic is off-putting. But Room is so much more than a sensational plot. It is a psychological thriller, and a tender story of a mother's love, and a commentary on our modern lives, all rolled into one.
I totally agreed with Ron Charles's review of Room in The Washington Post, if you'd like to hear someone else gushing over this book. Or just scan the Amazon comments – wow.
Why, hello there, FTC! Oh, this old book? I got an ARC of Room last May at BEA. Can't believe I didn't read it until now.