Room without a view

Written by Garima Pant | Updated: Sep 20 2010, 05:19am hrs
Dark, sadistic and horrifying. Emma Donoghue's Room, nominated for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, has all the conventional traits of child abuse thrillers. Albeit, with just one subtle difference. The story is told by five-year old Jack. Loosely based on the Fritzl case in Austria (April 2008), Donoghue, mother of two young children, was seized by the notion of a child narrating his own story of emergence from a locked room into a world he hadn't known was there.

Jack has never left Room, the 11-by-11-foot home he shares with Ma, Plant, Rug, Duvet, Melted Spoon, and the dozen or so other semi-personified objects that make up his world. He's never seen grass or trees or any animal larger than a mouse, except on TV. He's not shared any real experience of the world beyond his confinement. The author has invented the abduction of a 19-year-old college student, who's been kept in a soundproof garden shed for seven years. The room has the basic necessities like a hot plate and a sink, a toilet and a refrigerator. It also has the grim memories of a stillborn child that was born before Jack. Her captor brings her enough food to survive, provides for the occasional Sunday treats and disciplines the captive duo by cutting off electricity and heat.

Jack sleeps in a wardrobe, away from the evil eyes of Old Nick, their captor, and has never uttered a word to him. Despite the terrifying storyline, Donoghue has focused on the elementary pleasures Ma and Jack enjoy, making most of the mundane and limited resources available in their confinement. They play hum while eating, and try to recognise rhymes and songs. Jack says, I count one hundred cereal and waterfall the milk that's nearly the same white as the bowls, no splashing, we thank Baby Jesus." Each day of the week has dedicated chores, like cleaning is reserved for Tuesdays and Monday is laundry day. The iciest moment of the story comes when Ma decides that Jack has to escape the confinement and step foot into a world that the five-year old has just learnt about. Ma and Jack are able to make their miraculous escape and then begins their, or rather Jack's, ordeal of the outside, real world.

Protected from the tiniest of troubles, Jack finds it difficult to imagine life without Ma. And for the brutally abused and emotionally scarred mother, an escape brings in more troubles to her life, making her emotionally vulnerable. There are instances in the book, which Jack describes as her mother being 'gone' where she confines herself to silence. Room keeps the reader occupied with its pace. There's never a dull moment in the book that makes you want to put it down; it surely is a book to be read in one go. Donoghue says she deliberately imagined both Ma and Jack as realistic characterswith inconsistencies, flaws, shifts of mood - and archetypes. I was thinking of such mythological pairings as the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, says the author. However, such is the power of words and the emotional bond that the reader develops with Jack, that one wants to protect him, hide him from all evilan unconventional tale told in the most powerful way. And, as Donoghue says, Although the material I had to research was distressing, I knew that the situation of Jack and Ma would be far less horrible than any of the real-life cases people may think of, and that the story would lead readers from darkness into light.