Donoghue’s timely novel is written in the narrative voice of five-year-old Jack, born to a young woman kidnapped at nineteen and isolated in a secure 11-foot by 11-foot room. Seven years later, Jack’s curiosity is expanding, his mother ever more aware of the limitations of their circumstances. Like any young child, Jack is full of questions, his world defined by the most simple of spatial relationships - Room, Bed, Rug. Inanimate objects become his friends, even Tooth, his mother’s cast off decay that Jack treasures as a totem of the person who is his only link to the world.
Jack sleeps in Wardrobe, Ma’s attempt to protect him from “Old Nick,” the man on whom they depend for electricity and food, Ma forced by circumstances to cajole and humor her captor. Stained by Jack’s entry into Room but the vehicle of his deliverance in a desperate plan to escape, Rug becomes a critical element after the electricity is cut off for days as punishment. The security of Room is breached, Ma-and-Me finally released, “Outside” as frightening to the boy as anything he has experienced in his young life. Everything is new: grass, rain, people who exist beyond the images flickering on the tiny television screen, Dora the Explorer - Jack’s fearless guide in a place where everything is different and impossible to comprehend.
Donoghue moves from confinement to “Outside” with equal fluidity, Jack clinging to his perceptions of security while Ma attempts to reintegrate into the world and still protect her son from those who cannot fathom the accommodations woman and child have made to endure extraordinary circumstances. It is Donoghue’s genius that she makes the reader complicit in the journey, Ma’s emotional exhaustion, the mounting demands for interviews with the press, Jack’s incessant questions (and panic) and his inability to understand the actual separateness of Ma-and-Me.
The newspaper stories are fodder for talking heads on television,. Though “Outside,” mother and child face more daily challenges in navigating Jack’s unfamiliar environment. There’s no going back as the bright little boy tries to assimilate new information, reacting to strangers, facing stairs for the first time, the sensation of rain on his face, grass beneath his feet. While Jack has clearly delivered his mother from the shattering isolation of her confinement, the identity of two-as-one is equally painful, solitude virtually nonexistent for five years. Ma fears the emotional burden of leading her son through an “Outside” salted with unexpected obstacles, balance elusive in the best of circumstances.
Often I felt as claustrophobic as Jack’s mother, whether in Room or facing the stupidity of well-meaning relatives obviously frustrated by Jack’s inability to comprehend their euphemisms and expectations. Donoghue explores the reintegration into society for anyone living “Outside” the norm and the frightening juxtaposition of reality and accommodation to changed conditions. Even Room looks attractive in this chaotic collision of emotion and reality until a visit proves it only “a hole, a crater, where something happened.”