Stay-at-Home Mom: Emma Donoghue’s Room

September 29, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 5 4 min read

In her essay “Fail Better,” Zadie Smith suggests that writing style is not so much a matter of syntax and word choice, but the expression of a writer’s personality, their soul even, a reflection of how he or she interacts with the world. Smith writes of how, when we’ve spent the morning reading Chekhov, we find that by the afternoon, our world “has turned Chekhovian; the waitress in the cafe offers a non-sequitur, a dog dances in the street.”

I love this essay, but I always wonder what Smith might say about first-person narrators who are different from the writers who create them. I wonder what happens to style in those cases, and how it might be defined. Is every fictional consciousness a mere variation, an extension, of the writer’s consciousness? Can a writer’s consciousness, his true style, emerge when the words on the page are the words of some imagined person? If the self is a pesky, slippery thing that can only be revealed in glimpses, what happens when a writer chooses to subsume that self in another, fictional, self?

coverI thought often of Zadie Smith’s essay and these questions as I read Emma Donoghue’s Room, for Donoghue has nimbly captured another person’s consciousness in this tale, and it feels utterly true. Her narrator is Jack, a five-year-old boy who was born in an eleven-by-eleven foot room and has remained there with his mother (Ma), both of them held captive, for his entire life. The first few lines of Room plop you right into Jack’s mind, and you never get outside of it:

Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero.

Of course, for a child whose world is far from being pluralized, every object would be singular and personified. There is only one Bed, just as there is only one Ma, and one Jack, and one Old Nick, the man who brings them food and extra things for “Sundaytreat” (and who, the reader quickly comes to understand, is their captor–and Jack’s father).

The great wonder of this novel is that Jack’s perspective feels accurate but also fresh; in a sense, Room is speculative fiction (though cases like this do exist in the real world): what would a little boy be like if he’d never gone outside? How would his language reflect the confines of his existence? From one of my old graduate school notebooks, I’ve saved this note: “Character is enclosed in the language of the text.” Who said that, and when, I have no idea, but it seems to explain perfectly the thrill and the genius of Room, where “enclosure” provides not only a narrative pressure and drive, but a textual one as well.

The novel also speculates on what a mother would explain to her son in this kind of situation, and how she would order the universe. These choices are at the heart of the novel. Beyond the drama of seeing around Jack, of both absorbing his consciousness and translating it to understand what is actually going on, Room asks us to consider Ma’s survival tactics and the way she’s coped with being not only a prisoner, but the mother of a prisoner. She must keep Jack safe, but also entertained. And it’s not easy keeping a five-year-old entertained! Donoghue has taken the stay-at-home mom role to its most sickening and terrifying conclusion.

Ma is just as compelling as Jack is, and I marveled at the deft ways she was revealed through her son’s perspective. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but let’s just say, with the change of setting, so came a change in my perception of Ma. She felt almost archetypal in the beginning, but out in the world, she’s placed in context, she’s given a personality, she’s allowed to react and rebel. She isn’t just Ma. Her choices are scrutinized. Where does being protective end, and being selfish begin? Perhaps my questions of consciousness at the opening are also questions of parenting. How intertwined is the self of the writer (parent), and the self of the character (child)?

Where Room is most engaging on these questions, it also falls a touch short. I agree with Aimee Bender’s review of the novel for the New York Times Book Review, particularly regarding Donoghue’s treatment of Ma breastfeeding Jack. Bender writes that this intimacy causes “a flicker of unease” for the reader, but that the novel doesn’t fully wrestle with the implications of this mother-son bond: how it’s maintained, strained, and complicated when their two-person world ends. The last third of the novel is more interested in depicting how Jack copes with the expansion of his experiences, rather than examining fully the beauty and muck of Jack and Ma’s relationship–how he needs her, and she needs him. The way Jack interacts with the larger world is wonderful, but I wish the novel would have explored further its messier aspects as well. For instance, Jack doesn’t name breast-feeding, though he’s keen on classifying everything else he and Ma do. I wanted this namelessness to return and double back and discomfort not only me, but Jack and Ma. It did, but only briefly, and lightly. I felt let down.

Apart from that one small disappointment, this was one hell of a read. Just as my world is turned Chekhovian after a day of reading his stories, it didn’t take long for my world to turn Jack-ian. I began to see everything as he might; I reconsidered the smallest spaces. At one point, I caught myself speaking to my husband in a strange, child-like, world-cataloging way; at another, I apologized for reading at the dinner table. There were some scenes that had me crying out with alarm, my heart in my throat, and others where my concern and tenderness for the characters made me wonder how in the world I would ever become a parent. How would I be able to shoulder that responsibility and love?

I inhaled this book whole, let it affect my whole life. Emma Donoghue had me spellbound. I don’t know if her self is on the page, but someone’s is, and this novel’s got soul for days.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.