Out on the water, away from the busyness of Los Angeles, there isn’t a man-made sound to be heard. Just water splashing, seagulls chirping, the slight breeze echoing in my ears. And my mind wandered to Jack’s first visit to the beach.
Jack is the precocious five-year-old protagonist of Emma Donoghue’s Room, who, for the first section of the book, lives in an 11 x 11 room with his mother. The first section drags in a way that reading about a five-year-old boy living in an 11 x 11 room should. He plays games, he asks questions, he eats, takes baths, hides in his wardrobe at night. We read for pages unaware of why this mother and son live in a room: Are they part of a scientific experiment? Did the mother enter an unhealthy relationship? And it’s not until we are told the truth that the pages flip faster. Jack’s Ma was kidnapped by a man seven years ago, has his baby, and is trapped in his garden shed with Jack.
Room is very much about the reader’s experience. Members of my book club wanted to give up around page 35. Jack speaks in his own language, plays make-believe with toys, and a story that takes place in one room has little to offer. But that’s the brilliance of pacing the book this way. Jack never knew of a world outside Room, so when he leaves, he experiences an overwhelming amount of firsts—the breeze, the insects, the sand, the sun, the smells. When Jack is in the room, he is in control, but when he leaves there are too many questions left unanswered. And our senses are flooded in the same way.
The effect of telling this story entirely though Jack’s point of view is literary magic. He is aware enough to articulate his surroundings, but not aware enough to see the world complexly. When he was in Room, he believed that Bed, Rug, Mirror, Toilet, and TV were the names for his bed, rug, mirror, toilet and TV. He didn’t know that the world contained an uncountable amount of these items, a challenging notion for a boy who loves to count things.
Donoghue adeptly weaves atrocities into the five-year-old’s narrative. When Ma’s attacker rapes her at night, Jack counts the squeaks in the mattress. When the attacker punishes them by turning off the electricity and not bringing them food, Jack thinks that, at least, him and Ma are together. If the story came from the mother’s perspective, the book would be completely different – too horrible to imagine.
We create structure and limits to maintain control of our realities. And once those walls are down, we become as scared and lost as Jack became outside Room. Jack’s Ma did such an amazing job at sheltering Jack from the truth that after they escaped, he longed to go back to the Room he knew everything about.
Seeing the world for the first time through Jack’s eyes is the reason I thought about him while on my surfboard in the ocean. I tasted the salt on my lips, and thought that the sea tasted like tears, and Alice once cried a whole lake. When I faced the vertical wall of a large wave approaching me, I heard Jack say with “scave” (scared-brave), “No way, Jose.” I didn’t spend the first five years of my life in captivity, so I never had to think about all the things that overwhelm Jack in the real world. And in that way, Jack made me notice what I took for granted – like the ripples in the waves, the birds that floated on the ocean surface, clouds that looked like cotton, the mountains covered with green and yellow grass. This is the beauty of the Room experience: the world looks differently afterwards.