I have made a big show since I became a mom of telling anyone who recommends movies and books to me that I can no longer stomach dark thrillers the way I used to before I had my son. And then I go ahead and read Room (and watch Killing Eve), so you know that I can never be trusted when it comes to darkness.
Room is a unique story for many reasons, the first of which is that it is told to us entirely from the perspective of 5-year old Jack. The adorable Jack will have your heart on Page 1 of Chapter 1 of the book, and never let go. Jack’s story is also one-of-a-kind because there are only two inhabitants in his world – Jack and his Ma (insert lame Jack Ma joke). If you saw the world from Jack’s perspective it is very close to perfect. He has everything his heart desires in Room and most importantly, he has his Ma.
The reality of the world Jack and his mother live in, however, is that the two are trapped in a room by an abductor who kidnapped her from outside her college when she was 19. Jack was born in Room and is blissfully oblivious to the existence of any world outside it, because his Ma thought it kinder to not tell him what he is missing. To Jack, that there are only two kinds of entities in the world – those that are real and are in Room, and those that “are TV”. Ma is real, Table is real, Bed is real. US Elections are TV, planes are TV, birds are TV, Dora the Explorer is TV. Ma, on the other hand, is, of course, painfully aware of the deprivation they live in.
The story begins on Jack’s fifth birthday. Jack is old enough to start spotting logical inconsistencies in his world view, though not yet aware of the extent of the lie his life is. The moment Ma decides to tell Jack what their reality is, and the moment they decide to do something about it is the stuff edge-of-your-seat thrillers are made of.
The story is not just of their attempt – successful or unsuccessful – to escape their entrapment. It is also the story of Jack’s mind coming to terms with the vastness of reality outside Room.
It is also an inside glimpse of what PTSD is really like.
But most of all, it is an ode to the love between a child and his mother – the strongest bond in any context, but more so in the context of them being literally one against the world.
I still get more disturbed than my before-baby era when I come across dark stories. I still cannot stomach violence in anything I read or watch. But Room did not read to me like a dark or violent story, despite the dark and violent setting it is based in.
The reason is that the storyteller, Emma Donoghue, no surprise, is a mother. Her choice of telling this story through Jack’s perspective is everything. Her keen observation of her own children is obvious in her writing. How else would one think of capturing how a five year old mind can find joy even in this darkest of situations? If I had to summarize my takeaway in one line, I would say that Room is a great reminder of what paediatricians tell us new and frazzled mothers all the time – children are a lot stronger than we give them credit for. And this is what makes it an eminently readable and enjoyable book, even to those of us whose stomachs are on the queasy side of dark.