“When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything.”
–Emma Donoghue, Room
There are a lot of things I could say about Room. It’s a hard book to read. It is, after all, a book about a young woman kidnapped and kept captive. It’s a dark book of desperation, fear, and struggle. But it’s strangely altered by the narrator’s voice, which is really what interests me about the book.
Room is narrated by five-year-old Jack, the son of the kidnapped woman and her kidnapper. Jack, who has never met anyone other than his parents (and only really knows his mother). Jack, whose world is confined to the tiny shed in which his father imprisoned his mother years ago. This is a little boy who has never truly seen the sky. The sounds of the outside world are kept out by the same soundproofing that keeps Jack and his mother’s noise hidden. Jack’s entire understanding of language comes from four limited sources: his mother, the TV with three channels, a handful of children’s books, and conversations he overhears between his parents when he’s supposed to be asleep.
From the outset, Jack is a bit difficult to understand. He is a child, and an unusual child at that. He is unreliable and distracted, and his understanding of the world is very different from a normalized adult. He might as well be speaking a different language in the beginning of the story.
Slowly, as Jack describes his routine, it dawns on the reader. Jack and his mother are captives. Jack’s father comes in every night to violate Jack’s mother. The man’s only other place in Jack’s life is making the trash disappear and making “Sunday treat” appear, along with basic groceries to keep the pair of victims alive. This is a horror story seen through the eyes of a little, misunderstanding child. He literally believes that he, his mother, and the man he never sees are the only real people on the planet. Room is the world, and he cannot fathom what Outside means. But we, the readers, know.
Something about Jack’s voice as the narrator is both horrific and comforting. On the one hand, Jack’s innocence in tragedy is heartbreaking. There were stomach-turning moments as Jack’s mother fought to keep him safe while he hated her decisions for lack of understanding. On the other hand, Jack’s complete ignorance of his situation allows the reader to detach at moments, to take a breath. His light tone and strong, sudden emotions unwind the tension, if only for a moment.
Using Jack as the narrator is a surprising choice on the writer’s part, and it’s hard to get used to. Jack talks like a child and yet not. He understands many things yet nothing directly. If you don’t feel like struggling through the ins and outs of Jack-dialect, that’s understandable. But I think the narrative choice was the best for the novel and actually makes the story much more poignant than it would have been with any other narrator.