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Room: When reality bites

Room: When reality bites

A tempestuous journey through the strange life of a disturbed child and how families can pull together in the worst of times.

Emma Donoghue's Room is a disturbing book, at several levels. It's hard to explain why, without giving away the story... so while it's safe to read the rest of this paragraph, be prepared for some spoilers coming up.

You enter this story just as this adorable, spunky, intelligent long-haired kid Jack turns five. There's a detached sense of realisation that something is not quite right, when it becomes clear that he's still being breast-fed... or gets to “have some”, as he puts it. That aside, his Ma is pretty indefatigable herself, constantly playing games with him, reading out to him, telling him stories – she's undoubtedly an engaged parent. It's only much later that you realise just how engaged, and just how protective.

And then there's Old Nick – the creepy captor who Jack doesn't get to see, because he sleeps in Wardrobe by the time the nightly visitor comes. He counts the creaks on the bed, and only gets out of the said Wardrobe when the coast is clear.

Told in this precocious but reality-stunted five-year-old's voice, everything has its own identity, whether it's Bed, Meltedy Spoon, Remote (uncharacteristically, he gets a present from Old Nick for his birthday) or Room... Jack's love for his Ma is a strong force that transforms into a full-blown rage when he's finally told the truth about things – till a certain point in the book, for his own sanity, she keeps him in the dark about the Outside, as he calls the outside world, so he thinks if the door to the Room opens, they'll be sucked into outer space.

And yet he does know several of the “facts of life”, courtesy the various TV channels they keep flicking through. Ma puts him through his paces too, which explains his vocabulary.

Donoghue's talent is abundantly clear – it's not just her knack for getting you inside his head, but she is also able to describe exactly how complicated it is for Jack, when his world is turned on its head. It's tough to comprehend, all of a sudden, that everything he believed to be unreal and only “in TV” - whether it's people, or stores, or things - is a facet of reality he's been denied.

The story doesn't flinch away from crippling realities – Jack's matter-of-fact reading of his mom as Gone, when she slips into extreme depression, a sort of catatonic state...how he hates her in his fear, but ultimately how their love fuels his courage and how he learns to be “scave” (scared but brave), when she's not at his side... I won't give away the escape plans or the fear factor or the rehabilitation at all, except to say it's going to bring you to the brink of tears several times. Ma's only 26, after all, it turns out, and Room exerts not just a toxic grip on her, (much more than on her child, who knows it as his only reality) but a powerful hold on the reader as well.

Apart from the trauma, the contrast with the outside world is almost too much to bear and you're left contemplating the courage that co-exists with the horror, the love with the futility of it all, and how hope carves out a space for itself, overriding the terrible grip of fear.

At one level, it takes on the modern-day world where we're all simply too busy - all the noise of the outside world blankets out the things that should matter... On another, it's an ode to families and how they can pull together, in the worst of times.

(Room by Emma Donoghue is published by Picador, Rs 499. The novel was short-listed for the Booker Prize.)

first published:September 08, 2010, 10:57 IST