What if a single room and its contents were your entire world, the only thing you had ever known? Only a television and the occasional "Sunday treat" provide information about the outside world - but you don't know that a world exists outside your door. You only interact with your mother and she with some shadowy figure called Old Nick.
This is the world of five-year-old Jack and his mother, Ma, in Emma Donoghue's Booker-shortlisted Room. Jack narrates the book and he's very articulate for a young child. All the furniture in the room has a proper name - Chair, Bed, Wardrobe - and a gender. For Jack, everything in Room is his world and everything on the television is make-believe or Outer Space (the channels are "planets"). Ma is trying to raise Jack in as close to what the outside world would consider "normal" as she can get: she tries to get healthy food to eat, limits sweets and television time, teaches him math and reading, keeps them moving through imaginative exercise. Between the lines of Jack's childlike narration is the very dark figure of Old Nick and it takes no time at all for the reader to determine that Ma has been kidnapped, held against her will, raped repeatedly, and the kidnapper/rapist has fathered Jack. Sinister stuff indeed.
Donoghue does a remarkable job keeping Jack's narrative voice going throughout the novel. He is the child of a young mother and they are both observant of the pop culture delivered through the television; current popstars like Lady Gaga are name checked, Ma and Jack dance to music videos, Jack is a great friend of Dora, and Oprah makes several appearances throughout the book. Jack's view of the world - Room - is so sharply defined that he eventually has some trouble assimilating new information.
One of the things I found so interesting was the shift in attitude that I had to make as a reader at the beginning of the novel. I would assume that a child cooped up in a single room would be intellectually behindhand and Jack and Ma wouldn't make for interesting reading. Well, Jack's opening narration changed all that and Donoghue gave Ma a wonderful way of making everything either a game or a teaching moment; very ingenious. It was a way of saying a mother would do anything for her child, even setting aside her own fears and depression. Later in the book, the outside world had to make the same shift in attitude that I had in order to accept Jack and Ma.
I appreciated the subtle play on the myth of Danae from Greek mythology, especially since there are several references to God's face (the sun) through the skylight. Ma does keep knowledge of Jack's father from him, inferring instead that Jack came from heaven in a parallel with Zeus's golden rain in Danae's lonely chamber. Eventually, Jack is instrumental in bringing Old Nick down, also a parallel with the outcome predcited by the Oracle in the myth. I do also love Old Nick's name, a chilling intersection of jolly Old St. Nick, bringing presents, and Old Scratch, the devil.
I have yet to read Donoghue's Slammerkin but I can definitely say that it's in the TBR now.