In Donoghue's 'Room,' A Child's World Of His Own

Emma Donoghue i i

Irish playwright and novelist Emma Donoghue is also the author of the novels The Sealed Letter, Stir Fry, Hood and Slammerkin. Her latest novel, Room, has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Nina Subin hide caption

itoggle caption Nina Subin
Emma Donoghue

Irish playwright and novelist Emma Donoghue is also the author of the novels The Sealed Letter, Stir Fry, Hood and Slammerkin. Her latest novel, Room, has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Nina Subin

It isn't easy to talk about Room without giving too much away. The captivating novel by Irish writer Emma Donoghue is matter-of-factly narrated by a 5-year-old named Jack. The setting is an 11-by-11-foot room where he lives with his mother — and when the book begins, it is the only world he has ever known.

"What Jack discovers early on — which is a complete shock to him — is that Room is not all there is," Donoghue tells NPR's Melissa Block. "He's spent five years thinking that he's in this world with his mother, and that outside there's outer space with stars and planets zooming around."

Jack thinks that he and his mother are the only two real humans, and Old Nick — the man who visits every couple of nights — is perhaps borderline human. In fact, Old Nick is their captor — he kidnapped Jack's mother when she was 19. All that Jack reads in books and all he sees on TV he thinks is pure fiction. His discovery that they are prisoners shatters his worldview.

'A Tribe Of Two'

The Room itself is a character of its own in the novel — it's capitalized, as is everything it contains — Lamp, Toothpaste, Table. Donoghue says she did not want it to feel as though Jack and his mother were living a "stunted version" of the American lifestyle.

"I wanted to almost think of them as a tribe of two," Donoghue explains. "Room has a perfectly valid existence to Jack as a world. It doesn't seem small to him, because he's never experienced anything bigger. The Bath, the Bed, the Wardrobe, Under the Bed — these are all separate sort of sub-landscapes for him, and every object in the room is his friend."

Room
Room: A Novel
By Emma Donoghue
Hardcover, 336 pages
Little, Brown and Co.
List price: $24.99

Read An Excerpt

There are 10 books in the Room, of which five are children's books. Jack loves when his mother reads to him — and makes sense of the world described in the book in this way:

Ma nearly always chooses The Runaway Bunny, because of how the mother bunny catches the baby bunny in the end and says, "Have a carrot." Bunnies are TV, but carrots are real, I like their loudness. My favorite picture is the baby bunny turned into a rock on the mountain and the mother bunny has to climb up up up to find him. Mountains are too big to be real, I saw one in TV that has a woman hanging on it by ropes. Women aren't real like Ma is, and girls and boys not either. Men aren't real except Old Nick, and I'm not actually sure if he's real for real. Maybe half? He brings groceries and Sunday treat and disappears the trash, but he's not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats. Maybe Door makes them up with a beep beep and the air changes. I think Ma doesn't like to talk about him in case he gets realer.

'In The Position Of Their Captor'

Donoghue says that her own 5-year-old son, Finn, was a great help to her in finding the voice of her young narrator. Though Jack is a "very peculiar version of a 5-year-old," Donoghue wanted his speech to line up with the speech of any 5-year-old boy learning language in the real world.

"I charted my son's language," Donoghue explains. "I followed him around like an anthropologist — writing down his strange grammar. And then I chose just a few of those classic 5-year-old traits to give to his speech. For instance, I love the way 5-year-olds try to make the past tense regular — they all say, 'I eated! I winned!' "

Jack at 5 is unusually verbal because his mother has worked hard to teach him in spite of their extremely deprived circumstances. One game — called "Parrot" — shows how Ma makes creative use of the television as an educational tool.

"Ma has very mixed feelings about television," Donoghue says. "I sort of agonized over whether to allow them television or not. I was often in the position of their captor — working out what they would be allowed to have and what they wouldn't."

Donoghue decided that Ma — like many parents — would allow TV, but would use it carefully, limited to just two shows a day. And she uses it as a linguistic coach for Jack.

"She will let him watch TV," Donoghue says, "and she'll suddenly press mute, and she'll ask him to repeat back the last sentence he's heard ... She wants him to be able to understand and repeat back words by someone who isn't her."

Ma coaches Jack on reading and writing, and even gets him to do yoga exercises — "Preparing him for a world that she prays he will someday get to enter for real," Donoghue says.

'The Cruel Truth Of The World'

As Jack gets older, Ma gradually reveals to him more about the truth of their condition — an experience that will ring familiar for any parent with young kids. Donoghue says most parents find themselves in the position of having to re-explain the Easter Bunny and other untruths to their children as they grow older.

"Before I had kids, I thought you should never lie to a kid," Donoghue says. "But now I've had them, I realize you almost lie to them by definition, because if you're trying to summarize something for your 1-year-old, you put it in very simple terms. You only gradually complicate the explanation as they get older."

Donoghue recalls the time her young son pointed to a horrific picture in a magazine that showed six people hanged by the neck. "What's that?" he asked. "Puppets," she answered.

There are moments as a parent, Donoghue says, when you simply cannot bear to tell your children the "cruel truth of the world" — and Ma is a "concentrated version" of that.  She does not want Jack to grow up thinking that he's a prisoner — and yet to keep that information from him is a betrayal. She has lied to him his whole life.

Like many of her characters, Donoghue says Jack lives inside her — and now memories of her own relationship with her children are also woven into the book.

"I tried to take the common or garden experience of parenting," Donoghue explains, "and just by isolating it under a spotlight, I tried to bring out the true, crazy drama of parenting."

The parent-child bond, she says, is "the most unstable, unpredictable kind of love story — and it's asymmetrical in that you will always worry for them, and they won't necessarily worry for you."

Parent-child relationships are often written in "banal and sentimental" ways, she says. "With Room, I was trying to capture the essential drama of parenting."

Excerpt: 'Room'

Room
Room: A Novel
By Emma Donoghue
Hardcover, 336 pages
Little, Brown and Co.
List price: $24.99

When she spits the second time it's my go with Toothbrush, I scrub each my teeth all the way around. Ma's spit in Sink doesn't look a bit like me, mine doesn't either. I wash them away and make a vampire smile.

"Argh." Ma covers her eyes. "Your teeth are so clean, they're dazzling me."

Her ones are pretty rotted because she forgetted to brush them, she's sorry and she doesn't forget anymore but they're still rotted.

I flat the chairs and put them beside Door against Clothes Horse. He always grumbles and says there's no room but there's plenty if he stands up really straight. I can fold up flat too but not quite as flat because of my muscles, from being alive. Door's made of shiny magic metal, he goes beep beep after nine when I'm meant to be switched off in Wardrobe.

God's yellow face isn't coming in today, Ma says he's having trouble squeezing through the snow.

"What snow?"

"See," she says, pointing up.

There's a little bit of light at Skylight's top, the rest of her is all dark. TV snow's white but the real isn't, that's weird. "Why it doesn't fall on us?"

"Because it's on the outside."

"In Outer Space? I wish it was inside so I can play with it."

"Ah, but then it would melt, because it's nice and warm in here." She starts humming, I guess right away it's "Let It Snow." I sing the second verse. Then I do "Winter Wonderland" and Ma joins in higher. We have thousands of things to do every morning, like give Plant a cup of water in Sink for no spilling, then put her back on her saucer on Dresser. Plant used to live on Table but God's face burned a leaf of her off. She has nine left, they're the wide of my hand with furriness all over, like Ma says dogs are. But dogs are only TV. I don't like nine. I find a tiny leaf coming, I've seen her two times, that counts as ten.

Spider's real. I look for her now but there's only a web between Table's leg and her flat. Table balances good, that's pretty tricky, when I go on one leg I can do it for ages but then I always fall over. I don't tell Ma about Spider. She brushes webs away, she says they're dirty but they look like extra-thin silver to me. Ma likes the animals that run around eating each other on the wildlife planet, but not real ones. When I was four I was watching ants walking up Stove and she ran and splatted them all so they wouldn't eat our food. One minute they were alive and the next minute they were dirt. I cried so my eyes nearly melted off. Also another time there was a thing in the night nnnnng nnnnng nnnnng biting me and Ma banged him against Door Wall below Shelf, he was a mosquito. The mark is still there on the cork even though she scrubbed, it was my blood the mosquito was stealing, like a teeny vampire. That's the only time my blood ever came out of me.

Ma takes her pill from the silver pack that has twenty-eight little spaceships and I take a vitamin from the bottle with the boy doing a handstand and she takes one from the big bottle with a picture of a woman doing Tennis. Vitamins are medicine for not getting sick and going back to Heaven yet. I never want to go, I don't like dying but Ma says it might be OK when we're a hundred and tired of playing. Also she takes a killer. Sometimes she takes two, never more than two, because some things are good for us but too much is suddenly bad.

"Is it Bad Tooth?" I ask. He's on the top near the back of her mouth, he's the worst.

Ma nods.

"Why you don't take two killers all the bits of every day?"

She makes a face. "Then I'd be hooked."

"What's —?"

"Like stuck on a hook, because I'd need them all the time. Actually I might need more and more."

"What's wrong with needing?"

"It's hard to explain."

Ma knows everything except the things she doesn't remember right, or sometimes she says I'm too young for her to explain a thing.

"My teeth feel a bit better if I stop thinking about them," she tells me.

"How come?"

"It's called mind over matter. If we don't mind, it doesn't matter."

When a bit of me hurts, I always mind. Ma's rubbing my shoulder but my shoulder's not hurting, I like it anyway.

I still don't tell her about the web. It's weird to have something that's mine-not-Ma's. Everything else is both of ours. I guess my body is mine and the ideas that happen in my head. But my cells are made out of her cells so I'm kind of hers. Also when I tell her what I'm thinking and she tells me what she's thinking, our each ideas jump into our other's head, like coloring blue crayon on top of yellow that makes green.

Excerpted from Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue. Copyright 2010 by Emma Donoghue. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Co.

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