The child narrator is a conceit rife with cliche. They’re always pretentious, super smart and somehow naive as well. There are exceptions, sure, like the adult reflecting back on childhood (Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird) or the justifiably altered child (autistic Christopher, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the NightTime), but a huge percentage of would-be young narrators are just rather hard to believe. Then comes Jack, the 5 year old who guides us through the world of Room.
Not only does Jack speak authentically, but Donoghue has burdened him (and by proxy herself) further by supposing the boy has lived his entire life in the confines of a large storage shed doubling as an apartment. Jack and his mother are being held captive by Old Nick, an eerily authentic character somewhere between a vagrant and a psychopath. Jack’s perception of reality is flawed by his inability to distinguish what is real from the imaginary, a line blurred further by his mother’s efforts to create any semblance of normalcy in his life. For example, he refers to many household objects as capitalized, article-less “people” i.e. Table, Carpet. Donoghue does a masterful job of making her reader believe Jack’s perception of the world around him – that everything outside his “outer space” or something from television, and that the universe consists solely of the four walls around him.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Room is the challenge Donoghue sets herself once Jack escapes into the real world. To be forced to see the everyday with virgin eyes is quite the revelation. Everything from grass to seagulls to chewing gum needs an explanation and a sensory description from Jack. Even mired in all these details, the book goes by so quickly. I would’ve gladly read another 400 pages, and while a sequel would be frivolous and harmful to the text, I can’t deny I’d read it in a heartbeat if I found it on the shelf. The mother character is really a fascinating study as well. She tries so hard to be good to Jack, but inevitably people wonder: why didn’t she ask Old Nick to give him away? Was it selfish of her to keep a child in her confines chiefly to prolong her sanity? It’s really hard to say. There’s a few moments when mother and son are recovering in the hospital after Jack’s escape, and she lays into him pretty good about things that seem so obvious to her but that he has no understanding of, like being able to bathe separately, or sleeping apart. I was relieved to see Ma not be depicted as the perfect mother; it made me relate to her a lot better.
This novel was that rare breed of prose that reminds you there are still new things to be done, provided you’re creative and talented enough to execute them. Simply stunning.