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Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

I want some very much, I didn’t have any all day. The right even, but I’d rather the left. If I could get in with Ma and have some – but she might push me away and that would be worse.

What if I’m in Bed with her and Old Nick comes? I don’t know if it’s nine yet, it’s too dark for seeing Watch.

I sneak into Bed, extra slow so Ma won’t notice. I just lie near. If I hear the beep beep I can jump back in Wardrobe quick quick.

 -excerpt from Room by Emma Donoghue

We’ve never written a fiction review here before, but I couldn’t wait to tell everyone about Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue.

I was hesitant to review and recommend this book because it really affected me, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to recommend that others go through those same feelings. The story is told from the voice of Jack, the five-year-old son of “Ma.” Ma has been trapped in a room for seven years, a captive of “Old Nick.” I’m sure you’ve just done the math – Jack is born to Ma while she is trapped in this room. While Ma certainly feels the constraints of Room (yes, a proper noun according to Jack), Jack is quite content. As Aimee Bender describes in her review of the book, to Jack, Room is basically an extension of the womb. Ma ensures that it is a safe and comfortable place for him, and she is his constant caretaker.

I think anyone who appreciates the philosophies of attachment parenting would be able to identify with Ma. Actually, I think just about any mother would be able to identify with Ma to a certain extent, but she seems to have some qualities that fall in line with attachment parenting. For example, Ma is still breastfeeding five-year-old Jack. I found this to be one of the more endearing aspects of the novel. Jack narrates these moments by talking about the comfort he receives from breastfeeding and also adds in humor when he discusses which side is “creamier” or how much he gets from a nursing session. Another aspect of the book that reminded me of attachment parenting principles is how Jack refers to himself as me-and-Ma. He doesn’t see himself as separate from his mother. In his eyes, they are simply extensions of each other.

The book has a dark premise, but the lovable and upbeat voice of Jack makes it easier to see the bright side of every situation. Had this story been told from Ma’s point of view, it would have been too emotionally difficult to read. Through Jack, we can see how Ma is affected by her captivity. She often goes through bouts of depression and suffers through regularly nightly visits from her captor. As a five-year-old, Jack doesn’t quite know what is going on with his mom, so while the reader understands, the author does a skillful job of not burdening us with the details.

It is hard to read Jack’s words and not imagine it is the voice of my own toddler speaking. That is one thing that made this book emotionally difficult to read. The plot was often suspenseful, but again, the author crafted it in such a way that the reader was not overly disturbed with the agony the characters bear. It almost makes you sick to your stomach to imagine being in Ma’s position, but the author gets the reader through the most difficult times quick so we can feel some type of relief soon enough.

I was originally drawn to the book because of the review in the New York Times, particularly because the author was disturbed by the prolonged breastfeeding. I wanted to read it for myself to see if I felt equally disturbed. I didn’t. I loved how Jack appreciated the comfort, and I could also appreciate Ma’s willingness to continue to provide this comfort, even though you can tell that she was ready for Jack to wean. Eventually, we see how Jack is weaned, and although it is not completely child-led, Ma makes it as easy for him as she can despite her own trauma. Ma is not 100% selfless, but when she is not, the reader can sympathize with her and respect her for everything she has done for her son. Ma goes above and beyond to protect Jack from hardship, and she rarely puts her own needs first. I think this is where another aspect of attachment parenting comes through in the novel. Ma does practice balance to the extent that it is possible while having no choice but to care for her son 24/7.

Like I said, I was hesitant to recommend this book because it is so easy to identify with Ma, and she is in a terrible situation. However, this book is amazingly written. Emma Donoghue is extremely talented, and she crafted the story in a way that provides a perfect amount of tension and relief. Start reading this book on a day when you have nothing else to do because you won’t want to put it down. Although the premise of the story is based on something hard to imagine (and I don’t think most people want to imagine it), the characters shine through the darkness, and these are two characters that I will never forget. I don’t think you’ll be sorry you read this book.

Here is the website for Room the book.

Here are some links to interviews and essays about Room: NPR; BookPage; HarperCollins.

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Published in Book Recommendations