Room by Emma Donoghue
It is very hard to review Emma Donoghue's compelling Man Booker-shortlisted novel, Room, without giving away crucial elements of the story and undermining the author's mastery of the slow reveal. I'll begin then with the brief plot summary that appears on the book's press release: "Jack lives with his Ma in Room. It has a locked door and a skylight, and measures 12 feet by 12 feet. He loves watching TV and the cartoon characters he calls friends but he knows that nothing he sees on screen is truly real - only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits there's a world outside ..."
The story is told entirely from 5-year-old Jack's point of view and in his voice. As he begins to understand more about his situation, so too does the reader. It is a tightly controlled, beautifully written and observed study of a mother/son relationship wrought in extraordinary circumstances.
At this point I must add: spoiler alert. Stop reading now if you don't want to know how Ma and Jack came to be living this way and what happens to them without reading it first in the novel.
On the other hand, between the Booker shortlist and the general enthusiastic raving about this book, it's likely many readers will already know that as a 19-year-old student, Jack's Ma was abducted from her college campus and has since been kept prisoner in the backyard cell Jack knows as Room. There she is visited most nights by her abductor and, as a result of those visits, Jack was conceived.
Given the number of headlines in recent years involving young women taken and kept as prisoners, it is perhaps odd there aren't more novels taking on the subject. I doubt few would have handled it as interestingly, sensitively and as capably as Donoghue.
She gradually opens Ma and Jack's world to the reader, along with details of their life together and their intensely close relationship. For Jack, Room is his entire world, the inanimate objects in it, such as Remote and Rug, are his friends.
He and Ma fill their days with activities and games he doesn't realise his mother has made up to educate him and keep him healthy. We get to know Ma through Jack and learn the horrors of her ordeal and the physical and emotional toll it has taken on her, through snippets she lets slip and things Jack overhears.
Like everything else in this world, we meet Ma's abductor, the sinister Old Nick, only through Jack as he makes his ghastly night-time visits. Since Ma keeps Jack hidden in Cupboard during these visits where he is supposed to be "switched off" (asleep), he rarely sees Old Nick. He becomes almost another inanimate object. Almost. Though she is never voyeuristic, Donoghue never lets us forget what Old Nick is.
Once the pair make their escape what follows becomes about adapting to life out of Room. Although Ma has memories of a normal life outside those four walls, for Jack it is the only home he has ever known and there's a great deal of tension in wondering how either of them will cope.
Donoghue keeps an extraordinarily tight rein on the narrative: not once do you catch Jack observing or understanding things that jar with what you'd expect from any 5-year-old, or him in particular. If his naivety becomes irritating and repetitive you find your response reflected in other characters - those who know his past but cannot begin to understand it.
What keeps you reading is not so much the facts of Ma and Jack's situation but the compelling relationship between mother and son and how they depend on each other for survival in different ways.
This is an astute and hugely skilled piece of writing, but you don't notice that so much until it's over.
What you notice while reading is that you're simultaneously repelled, alarmed, engaged, moved and even charmed - and that it is very hard to put down.