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(a kinda, sorta) Review: Room by Emma Donoghue, and the struggle to escape a reading slump

I was already familiar with Emma Donoghue's writing through her thoroughly wicked, twisted and delightful take on fairy tales, Kissing the Witch. (As a matter of fact, I think I should reread it and write a review.)

It was with some trepidation that I approached this book, knowing Donoghue can write well, and write well about dark subject matter, and the concept of this book is nothing if not dark, and unlike the fantasy of fairy tales in Kissing the Witch, Room is grounded in realism, which I have always found much chillier and more frightening than any fantasy. I had heard it variously described as horrible, fascinating, harrowing but inspirational, and several reviewers called it exploitative of the suffering of real world victims of crimes such as the one that forms the background of the story.

I knew, almost from the moment I heard of Room, that I would want to read it - not quite enough to go out and buy it, but if I came across it cheaply or for free I would definitely read it. I think the same thing about dozens of new books every year, and while I occasionally do get my hands on one and read it, I forget about most of them. After all, when you are struggling to make inroads on a TBR library of over 700 books you already own AND people keep lending you interesting books, it‘s easy to forget the „might read some day“books. 

But not this one. Every time I saw a copy or a photo of the cover, I thought „I have to get round to reading it“. Finally I came across a second hand copy, bought it and took it home with me. It went on the chair where I keep all my newly acquired books until I have time to enter then into my library database and there it sat for a few weeks while I struggled through a reading slump during which I reread lots of books in order to try to get myself in the mood for reading something new. 

And then it finally happened: I was ready for a new (to me) book. I looked at the volumes awaiting entry into my library catalogue and noticed Room at the top of the pile. I picked it up, opened it and began to read. I barely put it down again until I was about halfway through, and then finished it in one sitting the next day. 

I don‘t think it can count as a spoiler when I say that the story is clearly inspired by true stories about women kidnapped and kept as sex slaves and forced to give birth to their abductors‘s babies. The Fritzl case is the most clear inspiration and one that Donoghue has openly admitted. 

Despite what I had read about it when it first came out, I had somehow managed to miss an important fact about the story. Not knowing that, I had wondered how the author had managed to hold at bay the full horror of the situation depicted in the book. Having the narrator be a child was a stroke of genius and made it possible to keep the horrible situation on the periphery of the story, focusing instead on the narrator and his relationship with his mother. Some might say that this only makes it all the easier to let one‘s imagination take over and fill in the blanks with all kinds of horrifying details, but I found it made it easier to push all that aside and instead allow oneself to see the world of Room through the innocent eyes of the child who thinks the world consists of the room where he and his mother are incarcerated and there is nothing outside. 

Jack is a believable five-year old, bright for his age, with the wilfulness and energy of a young child, but he is stunted by the small world he has been forced to live in, and fearful of the world his mother tells him is outside the room. His mother, known simply as "Ma" comes across as brave and hopeful most of the time, except when she has bouts of depression that make one wonder if perhaps Jack is her lifeline, the thing that has made her keep on living through her captivity. 

I don't think I will say more about the plot, but I will say that I found the story inspirational and well written and I enjoyed reading it, although I don‘t think I will ever read it again. It‘s simply not that kind of book.


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