Emma Donoghue’s Room has become a touchstone of contemporary literature. The story of a mother and her captive son living in an 11ft x 11ft shed has been the subject of a film, a stage adaptation, and countless book clubs. It has spawned discussions of what is possible in a claustrophobic world, and about the power of the human imagination to endure in spite of horrifying circumstances. It has also reminded us of how a novel can generate empathy even when the author does not claim to be telling a true story.
Room has been praised for its matter-of-fact narrator, five-year-old Jack, whose voice allows readers to experience the world as it is seen through his eyes. This unique perspective has been central to Room’s success. While the novel’s subject is horrific and harrowing, Donoghue presents it as a story full of life and hope. The resolutely optimistic curiosity of the boy’s mind makes him a character who can connect with readers in a way that more traditional carceral narratives might not.
Donoghue is a teacher, playwright and literary historian who was born in Dublin in 1969. She lives in Canada and is the author of seven novels, two short story collections, three plays and several books on Irish literature and culture. She has won the 2010 Hughes and Hughes Irish Novel of the Year award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the 2011 Commonwealth Prize for Fiction (Canada & Caribbean) and the W. H. Smith Paperback of the Year, and her 2015 film adaptation of Room won a Canadian Screen Award and was nominated for a BAFTA and Academy Award.
While many critics have compared the confinement of Ma and Jack in Room to state-sanctioned incarceration, Donoghue is careful not to overstate the comparison. Rather, she focuses on the ways in which Ma and Jack refashion their daily experiences in the shed into a world of their own making. They spend their days engaged in a variety of activities that are common among confined people: counting things in the limited space, entertaining themselves with stories and songs, fantasizing about life beyond confinement and trying to gain the upper hand on their captors.
It is this approach to narrating the confinement experience in Room that gives the novel its capacity to resonate across borders and generations. The text is able to generate empathy for the characters because it is not presented as an autobiographical account of imprisonment and does not focus on a specific type of confinement. As such, it can be viewed as a precursor to other narratings of confinement—including the memoirs of prison diarists like Albie Sachs and the prison dramas of Lorraine Hansberry and Tennessee Williams. By filtering this material through the five-year-old narrator’s narrative perspective, Room is able to connect with readers in ways that other confined-world novels might not. This article will explore how this is possible and why the book has had such wide international appeal.