I’m pretty sure that Minnesota winters were easier to bear when I was growing up, because I did not realize there were more temperate place, that not everyone had to endure the long, cold wi. Human beings are remarkably adaptable, especially ones who are young and don’t know things are different elsewhere or that change is possible in their own everyday (and therefore “normal” and taken-for-granted) situation.
The five year old boy, Jack, who is the narrator of Irish-Canadian Emma Donoghue’s novel “Room” does not realize that it is unusual never to be able to leave a small room (actually a shed) or to spend all his time with his mother. Television shows other realities, but for all the travelogues I saw as a child and movies set in the tropics (Mutiny on the Bounty, for instance), I did not cognize what it was like to live without ice and snow for month after month or conceive that I could live in such a place. (Now I find it difficult to understand how my parents who spent WWII in San Diego could have returned to Minnesota…)
Jack is precocious, but is still limited as a narrator, not only lacking an interesting vocabulary and fully developed syntax (such as definite and indefinite articles), but any knowledge of how peculiar his situation is. Room is the world; Mirror and Refrigerator are also capitalized, because there is only one in Jack’s world, rather than these being instances of a class with many members (mirrors and refrigerators).
Though she has been confined in the room for seven years, Ma knows there is a wider world and wants out from her incarceration by Old Nick (a devil if not The Devil). She has developed a plan once Jack is somewhat grown up, but a reviewer should not reveal what it is or how it goes down with what consequences for whom.
Though I was sometimes restive with the POV of a five-year-old unsocialized child, I admire Donoghue’s ability to maintain it and clue readers to what is going on. I think that less would have been more, that is, a shorter book would not have dragged, as Room does a bit. The book is surprisingly ungrim. Indeed, there is considerable humor in how Jack takes for granted a life that he does not realize is “imprisonment.” Ma hangs in to what she knows is illegal as well as involuntary confinement, raising Jack well.
The book, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, was, according to an interview published in The Star, partly inspired by the case of Elisabeth Fritzl, a 42-year-old Austrian woman who had been held captive by her father for 24 years. Many of Jack’s perceptions, both during captivity and afterward, were influenced by Donoghue’s own observations as a parent.
The book has unsettled some readers and reviewers, because Ma has not weaned her five-year-old son. Perhaps because I know people whose mothers postponed weaning in attempting to ward off further pregnancies (and/or sex with the father of their children), this does not seem implausible or shocking to me. In that weaning is often traumatic for one or both parties, why should she, lacking in other forms of gratification as both mother and son are? I wonder about anyone for whom this is the most shocking aspect of the novel!