Room by Emma Donoghue (Spoilers)

Nihilism with a smile. Over coffee on Monday in our lovely new office, a member of the Speke Baptist staff team coined this phrase to sum up this novel we’ve been discussing.

Jack, who celebrates his fifth birthday in the first chapter, has only ever lived in Room. The readers know there is a world outside his room, but he doesn’t. At first, we wonder, if Jack caught in some sort of post-apocalyptic world but the book unfolds into our worst nightmare; Jack’s mother was kidnapped seven years ago and is being held against her will in the room by the man he, appropriately, calls Old Nick. Worse even than that – Jack himself is Old Nick’s son.

Called a hymn to motherhood by one reviewer, Ma certainly comes out as the hero in the opening chapters of the book. The two sorts of dependence in these early chapters are starkly contrasted – a dependence on a cruel monster who is using you is horrible, a dependence on a loving parent who cares for you is beautiful, if, in the real world, unsustainable.

It is stunningly written – there’s one point in the book that led my wife to tell me to shut up as I tried to whisper sweet romanticisms to her as she was reading – such is the suspense. The writer perfectly captures the voice of a child and all Jack’s reactions feel right, even though it’s basically impossible to imagine his situation.

But in the end, the book is saying..nothing. That’s not an insult,I think that’s deliberate – there’s a clever pointer to that in the story as Jack turns on the TV and finds some academics discussing he meaning of his story. His no nonsense Grandma makes it clear there is none. At the end, Room is just a crater, a hole, where something once happened.

Oh, there is hope in the story, Jack and his Ma make a wonderful list of all the things they plan to do with their new freedom. It’s great that now they can plan to fly in a plane and live in another country. But their incarceration is nothing, it means nothing, they can only move on. Or try. Jack is young enough for his brain still to be plastic. Ma – well who knows?

Dare we, even with a life as gruesome as this, say that there is a God who can use evil for good? It sounds too much to say God can even redeem a horrific situation like this – but what is the other option? No meaning, just trying to move on. Is that better?


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