What Jack Didn’t Know

Emma Donoghue’s amazing ventriloquism in Room. 

Emma Donoghue, a writer of protean creativity and restless productivity, has spoken of being motivated by “a feeling of having so many unknown stories to tell.”Stir-fry and Hood, the novels that launched her career in the 1990s, tell familiar stories of mourning and coming of age from the neglected perspective of lesbian women. Two subsequent novels take real-life characters relegated to the margins of 18th-century history, a prostitute in Slammerkin and an actress in Life Mask, and give them complete stories. In Room, Donoghue again depicts a woman negotiating around constraints, but she herself sidelines the female protagonist: She puts this tale of a mother and son hidden from the world into the hands of a 5-year-old boy. Filtering an adult’s ordeal through the perceptions of a child, Donoghue unfolds a monologue seething with emotion yet delicately restrained. Funny, scary, and moving, Room explores in the most extreme conditions the frustrations inherent in all intimate relationships. There are stories we choose not tell, Donoghue knows, as well as ones we keep to ourselves until those we love are ready to hear them.

In his artless recounting of life within an 11-foot-square space, Jack depicts an existence that is a small child’s paradise, albeit with decidedly creepy undercurrents. He has his mother’s undivided attention every minute of the day. She never goes out; there are no siblings or a job to distract her; she’s still breastfeeding him. They have favorite games, like Orchestra and Dress-up. They have unvarying routines, like Sundaytreat, which arrives after Ma leaves a list of things they need with the full trash bag, and Scream, which they do “every day but not Saturdays or Sundays.” Every object in Room is familiar and named: Rocker; Bath; Rug with “the stain I spilled by mistake getting born”; Skylight, under which Ma stands at night repeatedly switching Lamp on and off; Door, “made of shiny magic metal, he goes beep beep after nine when I’m meant to be switched off in Wardrobe.”

Room, of course, is not paradise. It’s a soundproofed garden shed in the backyard of the man Jack calls Old Nick, who abducted Ma when she was 19. Jack has to be in Wardrobe after 9 p.m. because some nights Old Nick comes and “creaks Bed … till he makes that gaspy sound and stops.” Gradually, always remaining faithful to Jack’s 5-year-old voice, Donoghue skillfully builds a haunting portrait of a young woman, her existence totally circumscribed by her captor, who manages to turn their prison into a safe, orderly universe for her son. Ma has taught Jack to read and do arithmetic. She prays with him and tells him stories from the Bible. She lets him watch TV, but not too much, because “before I came down from Heaven Ma left it on all day long and got turned into a zombie that’s like a ghost but walks thump thump.” Such glimpses of Ma’s desperation, refracted through Jack’s limited understanding, are excruciating to read.

Yet Ma is no pathetic victim, and neither is Jack. Donoghue is as alert to their power struggles as she is to their symbiotic alliance. He’s so accustomed to complete intimacy that he doesn’t even like Ma to be awake when he’s asleep. He shouts if he doesn’t get his way, or if Ma’s reasoning makes no sense to him. Furious that there are no candles on his birthday cake, he brushes aside her reminder that that they must be careful about what they request for Sundaytreat, “because [Old Nick] might have to go to two or three stores, and that would make him cranky.” Don’t be silly, says Jack: “He doesn’t go in stores. Stores are in TV.” Herself the mother of two, Donoghue imports the ordinariness of a child’s logic into this setting of extraordinary isolation, creating a wrenching cognitive dissonance. Jack doesn’t realize that the people and things he sees on TV actually exist, and Ma has fostered this misconception; if Room is the whole world, he’s spared the knowledge of confinement that tortures her. But as he gets older, she finds it more difficult to protect him from Old Nick’s whims without offering explanations he has no basis for comprehending.

We see her dilemma with aching clarity when Ma tries to prepare Jack for a transition that can’t be anything but traumatic for them both. (I won’t say how Donoghue does it, but they end up confronting the outside world.) In a heartbreaking scene, Ma describes her childhood to her incredulous son, who can’t fathom how she could have a mother (“You’re the mother”) or a brother named Paul (“He’s a saint. … How can there be two Pauls?”). Ma weeps with grief and aggravation as Jack gamely tries to wrap his head around this baffling, threatening expansion of the known universe. But it’s too much when she admits that she misses playgrounds, picnics, trips to the zoo and the beach—things her son has never experienced and sees no need for. “Why don’t you like it in Room with me?” he asks. In the most particular, bizarre circumstances, Jack utters an eternal lament: Why am I not enough for you?

That question echoes through the novel’s second half, counterpointed by Ma’s equally urgent demand: How can I make you understand that I am not enough for you, either? Every parent knows the dance of disengagement that takes place as children grow up, the back-and-forth pattern of footwork that nudges a bond based on dependency and devotion toward a relationship of greater independence and equality. Donoghue choreographs this disorienting pas de deux with striking originality, and as she traces Jack and Ma’s contentious two-step, her impressive feat of literary ventriloquism is transmuted into a powerfully empathetic work of art.

Outside is overwhelming for Jack. Shoes hurt his feet; sunshine hurts his eyes; everything is so loud. The familiar objects left behind in Room have bewildering multiple counterparts in the psychiatric clinic where he and Ma are sent to recuperate. How can there be so many toilets, beds, and watches? And there are all these new things: windows, stairs, grass. It’s terrifying. “I don’t like it when you’re in and I’m out,” Jack wails outside the stall of a mysterious waterworks that isn’t Bath. “I’m just trying to enjoy my first shower in seven years,” she says wearily. Whiny kid, irritated parent: Again, Donoghue captures a strange situation giving rise to common human emotions.

But the trauma Ma endured and the challenges she faces are uncommon and agonizing. Donoghue sensitively provides only sidelong looks at her turmoil as she redefines her bond with a son who for five years has been her entire reason for living. The fact that we sense, but don’t know for sure what she thinks or feels gives the novel its painful poignancy. A ghastly television interview Ma reluctantly undergoes—she needs the money—makes it clear that anything she says merely provides fodder for the salacious media and its titillated audience, dying for the gruesome details Ma (and the author) refuses to provide. Some stories are too terrible to be shared. Donoghue’s ethical decision to respect Ma’s privacy is also an artistic one: We can see the most important things about her story by seeing the results of it—her son, frightened and angry, but stronger than he knows, because for five years she made of her hell a heaven for him.

Slowly, tentatively, Jack learns to deal with Outside and with separations from Ma. He persuades her to take a cathartic step toward recovery that scares her the way Outside scares him, echoing the words she used when he didn’t want to leave Room: “I’m choosing for both of us.” We see this final scene, as always, through Jack’s eyes; Ma’s voice is muted, her thoughts opaque. Donoghue does not presume to imagine her internal struggles, and this discretion, paradoxically, enables us to fully appreciate Ma’s resilience, undistracted by tabloid horror-mongering. Once again, Donoghue fulfills the imperative that drives all her work: to honor stories that have not been told by finding the best way to tell them.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.