Emma Donogue’s Room – A Gimmick That Works

Room CoverRoom by Emma Donoghue (Picador, £8.99)

The problem for books with a gimmick is that the novelty can wear off after a few pages.

But Emma Donoghue’s “Room” – shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010 – manages to overcome this impediment, leaving you engrossed until the end.

The ‘gimmick’ is that it’s written from the perspective of Jack, as he turns five. Two paragraphs in, and it’s clear that not all is right with Jack’s world. He lives in a single room with his mother, and appears never to have been outside or seen anything beyond those four walls. But why? What happened?

The poor syntax of Jack’s speech takes a page or so to get used to, but adds to the believability of the story. There’s a conspicuous absence of definite articles in our narrators vocabulary at first (for example: the room is just “room” to him, and the lamp is just “lamp”), which slowly and subtly improves as we sense him growing up and learning more about the world outside of ‘room’.

Donoghue has a knack for getting inside the mind of a child: not in a trite or clichéd way, but with a style that’s believable and gripping. And the author is smart enough to give us the exposition we need to follow the story, without dispensing that important data in an unrealistic or clunky way: “When I was a little kid, I thought like a little kid,” Jack says. “But now that I’m five I know everything.”

Yes, it’s a gimmick, writing from that perspective. And it should grow tiresome, but somehow never does. Without “breaking character” or taking any serious liberties with the form, Donoghue manages to keep her reader – like the two main characters – confined into a story that remains eerily believable.

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