Unlies His Mother Told Him
By Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Company, 2010
Jack is five years old. He has spent those five years living with his Ma in a single room. There is a bed and a rug and a wardrobe and a TV and a plant. In one corner there is a microwave, refrigerator, oven, and table. The landscape of his childhood – where you or I may have had a park, a library, a daycare center, a church, a mall, and a school – consists solely of these objects.
Room is narrated by Jack, and he’s an incredibly happy kid. Every day he and Ma wake up, have breakfast, and say hello to all of Jack’s friends – Rug, Plant, Wardrobe, and the characters in his 5 books. They exercise by walking in circles around the room or jumping on the bed. They sing, read, and play guessing games. What they never do is leave the room.
Jack’s mom was kidnapped from a parking lot when she was 19, and her kidnapper, a man she and Jack refer to as Old Nick, locked her in a reinforced shed in his back yard. After a few years she became pregnant with Jack, whom she has raised in the shed. When he was born she made the decision – which, upon reflection, seems to be the only one she could have made – not to explain the situation to him. As a result, he doesn’t know that there’s anything to fear or regret in his life. What he does know is that every night after he’s gone to bed, Old Nick brings groceries, gets in bed with his mom for a while, and then leaves. Old Nick has no contact with Jack, this being the one condition Ma is able to demand in exchange for her compliance. Although the reader infers the horrific circumstances he and she are in, Jack does not.
Writing in Jack’s voice is the defining decision of the novel. Donoghue took a bold step when she decided to write a story that features kidnapping, confinement, and rape told by the one character who’s having a great time. One does feel eerily detached, at times, listening to Jack prattle on about which vegetables he likes while a Jodi Picoult novel is playing out all around him. That detachment is very intentional. The reader gradually learns the basics of Jack and Ma’s circumstances, but isn’t meant to dwell on them. Donoghue’s not ignoring the underlying ugliness of the situation, but it’s clearly not what she really wants to talk about. Although the backdrop is complex, her focus never wavers from the uninterrupted intimacy of Jack and Ma.
Ma puts a gargantuan effort into making Jack’s life enjoyable. They are building a snake out of used egg shells, and every object in the room has a personality they’ve made up. Ma limits the amount of time they spend watching TV, because she doesn’t want their brains to “rot.” Instead, their days are full of imagination, such as their afternoon exercise.
I choose Phys Ed, it’s Hiking, where we walk hand in hand on Track and call out what we can see. “Look, Ma, a waterfall.”
After a minute I say, “Look, a wildebeest.”
“Oh, look,” says Ma, “a snail.”
I bend down to see it. “Look, a giant bulldozer knocking down a skyscraper.”
“Look,” she says, “a flamingo flying by.”
“Look, a zombie all drooling.”
This heroic effort is catalogued by Jack and, as with everything else in Room, his utter lack of reference allows him to accept it without question. There are long sighs, on occasion, and Jack reports that there have been a few days Ma doesn’t get out of bed, but we are given no other access to Ma’s inner life. A throwaway explanation, later in the book, that Ma had “always loved babysitting,” seems a woefully inadequate basis for the fact that she built a loving world for her son while living as a sex slave. The only other explanation that Donoghue offers is the one that Jack believes: that being with Jack makes her happy.
Later in the book Ma tells Jack a story about an experiment in which baby monkeys were kept away from their mothers when they were newborns, and who became maladapted without maternal care. Jack is the opposite of that experiment. Born into the smallest of worlds, he has nothing but his mother’s love, and he’s been brought up in an environment where his Ma is available to him, and only him, every minute of the day. In some ways it’s a perfect world for a child.
A story told by a five year old about doing the same things every day should not be fascinating. When you start reading, you worry that soon enough it will seem all too precious, or fundamentally dull, or – for how can an author plausibly spice up the action in a 122-square-foot room? – far-fetched. But Donoghue’s portrait of Jack and his Ma is captivating. You see how they’ve developed their own language and routines. Ma (we never learn her name) has no one but Jack to talk to, and so talks to him the way most people would talk to another adult, or at least a much older kid. Jack, as a result, is very bright, but still very naïve. Take this example of Ma giving Jack a birthday present:
She pulls a something out from under her pillow, I think it was hiding all night invisibly. It’s a tube of ruled paper, with the purple ribbon all around from the thousand chocolates we got the time Christmas happened. “Open it up,” she tells me. “Gently.”
I figure out to do off the knot, I make the paper flat, it’s a drawing, just pencil, no colors. I don’t know what it’s about, then I turn it. “Me!” Like in Mirror but more, my head and arm and shoulder in my sleep T-shirt. “Why are the eyes of the me shut?”
“You were asleep,” says Ma.
“How you did a picture asleep?”
“No, I was awake. Yesterday morning and the day before and the day before that, I put the lamp on and drew you.” She stops smiling. What’s up, Jack? You don’t like it?”
“Not – when you’re on at the same time I’m off.”
“Well, I couldn’t draw you while you were awake, or it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it?” Ma waits. “I thought you’d like a surprise.”
“I prefer a surprise and me knowing.”
This relationship – so symbiotic that Jack can’t stand the thought of his Ma being awake when he’s not – is the entirety of his world.
But, no, it can’t last the entire book. Jack’s world comes crashing down one day, shortly after his fifth birthday, when he sees a TV commercial for the brand of pain killers that his mother has in the room. In his understanding, this means that Old Nick is going to TV (which Jack believes is a different universe) to get the pills, which forces Ma to admit the following:
“Listen. What we see on TV is … it’s pictures of real things.”
That’s the most astonishing I ever heard.
There’s no unringing that bell. You can’t tell a 5-year-old that he occupies the tiniest fraction of the real world, instead of half of it, and then change the subject. And when she admits to her son that they’re in captivity, Ma loses her most effective coping mechanism. Neither of them is content anymore, and they start to rebel against their old patterns. Their eventual departure, literal and figurative, from the cocoon Ma had created in the room, is as heartbreaking as it is triumphant.
When I was four I thought everything in TV was just TV, then I was five and Ma unlied about lots of it being pictures of real and Outside being totally real. Now I’m in Outside but it turns out lots of it isn’t real at all.
When the baby monkeys who grew up without mothers were eventually introduced to them, they weren’t interested. When Jack is eventually introduced to the world, he’s not interested in it either.
Jack and his Ma, in a thrilling episode, get out of the room, and embark on a shaky assimilation into real life. Their escape is headline news, their upcoming court case against Old Nick (now in jail) is sure to be a media frenzy, and they find themselves having become human interest celebrities. They stay temporarily at a psychiatric clinic to help Ma cope with the aftermath of her trauma and Jack cope with leaving an 11-foot square room for the first time in his life.
But it’s their relationship, the complexities of which kept the novel interesting for 100 pages while nothing else was going on, that remains the most fascinating aspect of the last 200 pages. These two people, who have spent 5 years finishing each other’s sentences, doing everything in unison, are slowly pried apart. It’s the process of weaning on a sudden, traumatic, and exhaustive scale, spread amongst small daily episodes. Here, for instance, Jack and Ma buy new clothes:
Ma’s in a jeans that’s too tight. “That’s how they’re wearing them these days,” says Noreen, “and God knows you’ve got the figure for it.”
Ma grins, I don’t know why. She puts on a shirt that’s too tight too.
“Those aren’t your real clothes,” I whisper to her.
“They are now.”
It’s like a betrayal to Jack. Obviously, separation is what should happen. All kids have to leave the nursery, but most of them do it gradually, and at a younger age, and have never been allowed to believe that the nursery was the only world that existed. And Ma, we infer, wants a break from being the only person in her son’s life. But all this common sense doesn’t mean anything to Jack, and we’re getting his side of the story.
After all, Ma raised him to be perfectly happy living with her in a solitary room, and that’s exactly what he was – perfectly happy. He never yearned to go outside and make friends and play on a playground, and now he’s being encouraged, practically forced, to be grateful for the freedom he was molded to live without.
Jack’s voice, which verges on a cutesy liability in the first section, is the novel’s greatest strength in the second. Told from any other character’s point of view, the story could too easily be cut and dry: captivity was awful and freedom is a relief. But through Jack’s eyes, freedom is endlessly complicated. When Ma gets a present and he tries to play with it, she tells him not to touch her things. He thinks, “I didn’t know it was hers-not-mine. In Room everything was ours.”
Donoghue doesn’t ignore the fact that the pure psychology of the situation is fascinating, that a boy raised without any conception of property, society, safety, and boundaries would have major problems going to the mall. Watching Jack discover and comment on the world is at turns funny, poignant, and uncomfortable, but the central question is how he’ll learn to replace the real world for the one he knew.
In Jack’s mind, the outside world doesn’t have much advantage over life in the room, where the only thing that existed – for him – was safety and understanding. The achievement of Room is that while you’re rooting for Jack and his mom to make a real, happy life for themselves, you’re also grieving, with Jack, for the beautiful part of what he lost.
Janet Potter has worked in bookstores in Boston, Dublin, Greece, and Chicago. Her book reviews have also appeared in Bookslut and The Millions.