Emma Donoghue’s Room, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, takes its premise from the horrific real-life experiences of Elisabeth Fritzl and Jaycee Dugard, two women who were held captive for years and bore children by their captors. Room tells a story like this from the perspective of the child, in this fictional case a 5-year-old named Jack who has never known life outside of his mother’s small cell.
Aimee Bender, among others, is impressed, writing in the New York Times Book Review: “Jack’s voice is one of the pure triumphs of the novel: in him, [Donoghue] has invented a child narrator who is one of the most engaging in years — his voice so pervasive I could hear him chatting away during the day when I wasn’t reading the book.” Even Bender’s few objections, she says, are “based on the very high standards set by the beauty of the book.”
Nicola Barr in the Guardian is equally taken: “In the hands of this audacious novelist, Jack’s tale is more than a victim-and-survivor story: it works as a study of child development, shows the power of language and storytelling, and is a kind of sustained poem in praise of motherhood and parental love. Room is in many ways what its publisher claims it to be: a novel like no other.”
In the Los Angeles Times, David L. Ulin says the book suffers from its constricted point of view, and that in the book’s most pivotal moments, “things unfold too quickly, without sufficient context, inconsistent with how the characters behave.” Ulin also quotes Donoghue as saying that writing the book from the mother’s perspective “would [have been] too obviously sad.”
Which leads to the obvious question of whether writing it from the child’s perspective is too precious. As James Wood wrote in the London Review of Books, the actual bottomless horror of a situation like this in real life doesn’t really lend itself to even slightly charming fictional treatment. He writes: “[U]nfortunately Jack is a child, and unfortunately Jack narrates the novel, and unfortunately Jack is a pretty cute kid, which means that the book itself is never far from cuteness – more Adrian Mole than Ivan Denisovich – which may explain the endorsements of Room provided by sentimental popular novelists like Anita Shreve and Audrey Niffenegger.”
Room by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown, 336 pp., $24.99