When my friend Jen leant me ‘Room’ I approached it with apprehension. Our lives are filled with enough stories of horrific male entitlement, systemic abuse and violence towards women for me to seek out a story about a man abducting a woman, subjecting her to countless acts of abuse, and locking her in a room for his own, sick, violent enjoyment.
But Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’ wasn’t like that. ‘Room’ was far more a story of a woman’s courage, a mother’s love, survival, human endurance, grief, loss and hope than it was about the man who tortured her – who we know only by a nickname ‘Old Nick.’
The media and pop culture is obsessed with telling the story of male abusers, often to elicit sympathy and downplay their cruelty; and always to humanise and attempt to rationalise their actions.
I am a strong believer in understanding the multifaceted, and often systemic, reasons why people commit acts cruelty and crime. But the way the media approaches male violence against women, in Australia at least, elevates their humanity and their story above the stories and humanity of the women they brutalise and often kill.
It’s refreshing that Donoghue’s ‘Room’ spends no time exploring Old Nick’s story. The narrator tells the story only of Joy (Ma), Jack (her son) and the Room which they have made their entire world.
I was deeply moved by the way Donoghue uses the narrator to help us see into Jack’s mind. For Jack, the Room is everything. It is his whole universe and every object in it has a personality and place in his life – Lamp, Bed, Rug are all personified.
Donoghue writes beautifully about how Joy fills her and Jack’s days with adventures and routine and fun, so that Room seems so much larger and Jack’s days are broad and bright. She captures the moments where Joy ‘goes away’ (rare and horrible days where Joy doesn’t get out of bed, and Jack tiptoes around Room to not disturb his Ma) in contrast with the days they fill with craft and exercise and reading and writing, and it is clumsy (and trying to raise a child in a garden shed ‘Room’ is) but it is brave.
I spent most of ‘Room’ in angry almost-tears. Donoghue’s understated writing and extraordinary restraint when describing Joy and Jack’s abuse, allowed the reader to get close to them both and every injustice became more and more unbearable as the book progressed.