You might think days pass slowly in Room, but you would be wrong. Five-year-old Jack is always busy there. And so is his Ma.
"We have thousands of things to do every morning, like give Plant a cup of water in Sink for no spilling, then put her back on her saucer on Dresser," explains the precocious narrator in Emma Donoghue's startling new novel. There's also Breakfast and Bath and one TV show (only one, though, because "before I came down from Heaven Ma left it on all day long and got turned into a zombie. . . . So now she always switches off after one show, then the cells multiply again in the day and we can watch another show after dinner and grow more brains in our sleep."
Later, there's Phys Ed and Lunch and Scream, where Jack and Ma shout at the top of their lungs. Jack doesn't know why they must yell so loud, but he's 5; he likes to yell. Sometimes there's Orchestra (‘‘where we run around seeing what noises we can bang out of things'') and always there's reading, although there is only a handful of books to choose from, and Ma is getting awfully tired of repeating Dylan the Digger.
Room, you see, is Jack's whole world, even though it is only an 11-by-11-foot shed with a skylight in the back yard of a monster they call Old Nick, who kidnapped Jack's Ma off the street seven years earlier. But Jack doesn't know that part. He doesn't really know that Outside is real -- Room has never seemed like a prison because of his mother's determination that they create a life together -- until Ma begins to wonder if there isn't a way to expand their world.
Donoghue's story -- urgent, sly, funny, terrifying, affirming and sometimes all those things at once -- is remarkably simple but full of hidden complexities, a heartbreaking story of love and survival that's every bit as compelling as any thriller. It's based only loosely on real-life cases of abduction, though it brings too easily to mind the horrific Josef Fritzl case out of Austria (if you're not familiar with Fritzl, who kept his daughter in a dungeon for 24 years, Google him and await nightmares). Room has been shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize, and it deserves the award for its extraordinarily graceful navigation of horror, compassion and humor observed through the eyes of an extremely bright child whose imagination and courage can't be contained by four walls.
Author of three story collections and six novels including the bestselling Slammerkin, the Dublin-born Donoghue never strays from Jack's unique voice, deftly conveying more information than even he understands. Jack doesn't know exactly why he has to shut himself up in Wardrobe when Old Nick makes a visit every few nights, but when he goes to bed "I always try to squeeze my eyes tight and switch off fast." Good plan. He wouldn't understand what Old Nick is doing to his mother or the fact that the terrible act is why he exists. But we do, and our horror can't be quelled.
When Jack and Ma find themselves having to confront life Outside, Donoghue's novel becomes slightly less thriller and more a poignant psychological exploration of resilience. She never lets us forget that her story is essentially about plain human heroism -- from a mother, from a son -- a spark that can be kindled in the most unlikely circumstances.