Room is an 11-by-11 fortified shed where Ma and her 5-year-old son, Jack, are held captive and abused by Ma's abductor. Jack is the product of years of rape, a boy who has seen TV but thinks anything beyond Room is another planet.
It could be a lurid tale from here. But in Donoghue's capable hands, what follows is a subtle and soft look at freedom and survival from an innocent who can sometimes offer more than we expect.
Donoghue is one of my favorite authors, as much for her conversational but careful attention to language as her dedicated research to her topic. Making Jack our narrator - we only see Ma and captor Old Nick from his eyes - could easily have been a gimmick. But instead of getting tripped up in the cutesy or the simplistic, Donoghue offers us a boy whose delight and confusion are so real that it's hard not to feel protective of him from the first pages on.
We learn that Ma has found a purpose to her life by providing for Jack. She has devised a daily schedule in their prison - from mealtime to phys ed to only so much TV in a day - to try to give Jack something akin to a normal upbringing. The captor appears only at night - when Jack is tucked away from view in the wardrobe - to attack Ma and provide basic items for their survival.
We learn that Jack, hearing about an outside world, is both precocious and immature. No way, he thinks, was Ma ever Outside. She has always been with him, and he wants that world to remain.
By time we see and hear Jack as he faces freedom - and all the options and noises of the world - it's hard to look away. I read the book in one sitting, despite the fluctuations in intensity and action.
Donoghue has been short-listed for the Booker prize for this novel. I for one would love nothing more than for her to receive it.