It’s always interesting to read a book after watching the film adaptation first, particularly when the way the same story is told in different mediums is so drastically different. In Emma Donoghue’s remarkable novel, the only viewpoint we get is that of its narrator, a five-year-old boy named Jack, who lives with his mother (referred to solely as Ma throughout the book) in a 11-by-11-foot room, where he was born. As revealed later, Ma is a young woman who was abducted when she was a 19-year-old student, and kept for seven years in a soundproof garden shed by her captor, a much older man whose visits eventually leave her with a son.
Jack’s mother made every effort to make his life in the Room safe and happy, inventing routines and games with the few means at her disposal, and insisting on as little “brain-rotting” TV as possible. She also encourages Jack to believe that the Room is all there is to the world, and nothing Jack sees on their TV is really real, a decision which lets Jack have a semblance of a happy childhood. Their jailer, known to Jack only as Old Nick, brings them enough food to survive and Ma keeps Jack out of his way by hiding him in the wardrobe at night-time.
This may sound like a harrowing and lurid sort of setup, but the book’s genius is in telling the story from the point of view of a small child and restricting everything to his vision, which lends innocence to a very dark scenario without trivialising or downplaying it. Jack is happy in his routine and the Room for him is a safe magical place where every inanimate object is a good friend and deserves to be called with a capital – Rug, Bed, Meltedy Spoon, Door etc. Shielded from the true horror of their situation, he treats things like Ma occasionally spending a day prostrate on the bed with depresssion with a child’s acceptance. The novel never falls into the trap of making Jack’s voice sound precocious or cutesy; he’s maybe unrealistically articulate for a five-year-old but you can say the same about any character from a film or a book (let’s face it, no one wants to hear truly “realistic” dialogue).
Soon after we meet Jack on his fifth birthday, his mother begins to slowly reveal to him that there’s in fact a big world outside of their tiny cell, which is like telling an average person that most of the existence happens in a fourth dimension they didn’t know was there. Without spoiling things too much, Jack’s world does expand in the second half of the book, and as in the film, the story does lose something without the unique, claustrophobic setting of the first half. However, it still remains compelling, with the sensitive exploration of the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), Jack’s impressions of the Outside and its sheer disorientation and sensory overload, mother and son’s coping with their new situation and Jack’s eventual growth into his own person after their intense closeness in the Room. Some of Jack’s observations about the Outside are quite priceless:
“Everywhere I’m looking at kids, adults mostly don’t seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don’t want to actually play with them, they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there’s a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn’t even hear.”