In 2008, novelist Emma Donoghue was driving along a highway and thinking of a shocking news story, about an Austrian woman freed after being held captive in her father’s basement for 24 years while she bore him seven children. The entire story was overwhelming, but what really fired the writer’s imagination was the children. Three of Elisabeth Fritzl’s surviving children had been taken by their mother’s rapist, their grandfather-father, and raised in his home. But the other three, including five-year-old Felix, emerged from the dungeon with Elisabeth, and entered the larger world for the first time ever. The book that then came to Donoghue, “in a flash,” would be told from a young boy’s point of view; it wouldn’t be a tale of psychopath and victim, or of horrific sexual abuse, “but something closer to science fiction or fairy tale: a journey from one world to another.”
The result is Room, an inventive, tense and stringently intelligent novel, powerful enough to have been chosen for the Man Booker Prize’s short list, and provocative enough to have sparked a backlash among critics who accuse Donoghue of exploiting Fritzl’s trauma. The novel opens within a world—a whole cosmos, in effect—held inside the walls of an 11- by-11-foot garden shed, as seen through the eyes of Jack. Now five, he was born two years after his mother, then a 19-year-old student, was kidnapped and imprisoned in the shed by Jack’s rapist-father. The boy has never been outside its walls. Like Room itself, nothing within carries an article, definite or indefinite—whether bed, bowl or rug—because there is only one of everything. (When Jack later learns there are other boys also named Jack, he is deeply shaken in his sense of self.)
From the outside looking in, life in the room is claustrophobic enough to make a reader’s skin crawl, just as it is for Ma—crucially, throughout the novel Jack’s mother is identified only by role and never by name, though the boy is at first utterly unaware of the distinction. But that’s not the case for Jack—for him it is a rich life, richly described. It was artfully crafted for him by a loving, resourceful mother, with stories, play, exercise, education, carefully rationed TV viewing and endless attention: Jack and Ma have never been separated. But life in the room is becoming confining. There are times when Ma understandably falls into near-catatonic depression (days when Jack can watch as much TV as he wishes) or has to fight to keep normal parental frustration—when, say, the boy asks for a book to be read for the umpteenth time—from becoming foaming rage.
Filled with echoes of novels as varied as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (in which a blank-slate race of new humans undergo a crash course in untangling “unreal from real”) and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where a father and son wandering a post-apocalypse landscape are “each the other’s world entire,” Room raises profound questions about parenting and the push-pull relationship of parent and child. “I had just finished McCarthy as I started this,” Donoghue says in an interview. “Both of us are trying to make something epic out of parenthood, the most life-changing event we experience. Him, father and son alone in the wilderness; me, mother and child enclosed, a pregnancy enlarged.” Every parent, adds Donoghue, a dual Irish-Canadian citizen who lives in London, Ont., with her partner Chris Roulston and their children (Finn, 6, and Una, 3), “swings between captor and nurturer.”
This universal theme, brilliantly captured, seems to have escaped those critics who cannot escape Fritzl’s shadow. “From where I sit the exercise is contrived, exploitative and opportunistic,” wrote Australian reviewer Kathy Hunt, accusing Donoghue of cashing in on Elisabeth’s ordeal. The implications are far-reaching, as Donoghue notes, calling the argument, “a really crude form of identity politics—if you lived it, you can write it—otherwise your hands are tied. Does that mean Lynden MacIntyre was exploiting clerical sexual abuse in The Bishop’s Man?” There is only one way to judge whether a novel is exploitive, she says: “Motive is what matters.” And achievement, it could be added: Room excels on both criteria.