Emma Donaghue’s Room tells the story of Jack, a five-year-old who stays with his mother in what he only knows as Room. Jack was born in Room and knows nothing of Outside. In his world, things exist in the TV, but they’re not real real like he or Ma. His small world is made of routine, and he is quite content in his own world. It’s a very interesting, and challenging, choice of narration on Donaghue’s part. The story is told completely from Jack’s point of view. There is so much that he doesn’t understand or pick up on, and we are left to fill in the blanks or finish putting the puzzle pieces together.
Part one of the novel takes place mainly on Jack’s fifth birthday, where he and Ma go about their routine and Jack gives an introduction into his world. In Jack’s world, it is not a rug or the rug, it is simply Rug. In his mind, everything has a proper name, like Bed and Wardrobe. His friends, like Dora, live in TV and he’s always hopeful to see them. Ma says too much TV will turn his brain to mush, and he’s only allowed one hour a day. Jack and Ma spend a good amount of time reading. A common thread throughout the novel is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. This is how Jack analyzes many of the situations he faces: how everything happened to Alice. It is very much a forehead-slap moment when you really think about it, as later it does seem as though Jack has stepped through the Looking Glass. Jack exhibits symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; when “Old Nick” comes to visit Jack, he hides in Wardrobe and counts his teeth over and over until he falls asleep or counts the creaks Old Nick and Ma make on the bed until it’s over.
Part two is titled “Unlying.” This is where Jack’s world begins to change. Ma begins to tell him things that don’t make sense. There is a place called Outside, and not everything on TV is not real. She tells him a story about being nineteen, and a man in a truck telling her that he needs help finding his dog. When she came to, she was in Room. This is who Old Nick is. He created a shack in his backyard, completely soundproof with wire under the foundation so that there is no hope of escape. Ma tells Jack about her “second name” and the family she left behind. This is all too much for Jack to wrap his head around, and he doesn’t know what to make of it, which is completely understandable. We all have half (or less than) truths that our parents have told us, but odds are they didn’t spring it on us when we were five and truly couldn’t understand. This begins to push Ma to entice Jack with the idea of escape. Hee doesn’t want to be brave, though, because Room is all he knows. Why change now?
Part three, “Dying,” is the Great Escape. Much of this section is spent as the crescendo, asking: Will they make it? Will Jack succeed? Ma’s elaborate plan is well thought out, but it rests on the shoulders of Jack to follow through and accomplish the task. Again, this is where my frustration as a reader kicked in. Because we only have Jack’s thoughts and (mis)understanding to go by, I found myself wanting to shake a (fictional) five year old and turn myself into RuPaul saying, “And DON’T fuck it up.” But alas, that is not the way things work.
Part four is entitled “After,” as in (SPOILER ALERT) after the escape. Now Jack and Ma are celebrities, but there is so much more to be concerned with. While Jack is very intelligent for a boy his age, he has also become socially handicapped. The only human interaction he has had for five years was with his mother. Foods are foreign, showers are foreign, nothing makes sense in Jack’s world anymore and he wants to return to Room. Ma now has to adjust with reclaiming her identity and still being there for Jack. Now it’s not just about Jack’s survival, it’s about her own as well. She must reacquaint herself not only with family and friends, but with the outside world as well. Reading this section terrified me, because if I hadn’t been in the outside world for seven years and suddenly everyone wants to talk about my “bravery” and “struggles,” I would probably snap. This stems from finally having freedom, only to find you’re the hot topic and there’s no room to breathe.
The final part, five, is entitled “Living.” This lets the characters try to find some semblance of closure as to what has happened to them and what they have experienced. Jack is beginning to become better at social activity, but by no means is he prepared for strangers. Ma is still trying to figure herself out in this new world. Jack and Ma make a list of goals, things they would like to accomplish at some point. Some seem fairly simple (getting a dog) and others are more personal (having some of Ma’s old friends over for dinner). Jack wants to return to Room one last time, to say goodbye. When they arrive, everything has changed and he barely recognizes it, Room also makes Ma sad. There is no definitive answer as to how Ma and Jack continue living, but they do get closure and that’s really all the reader can ask for.