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Five Year-Olds Have Stories, Too: Narrative Voice in Emma Donoghue’s Room

Room is a brilliant, brilliant novel in so many ways. There are many good things about it but craft element I find most essential to this novel is its narrative voice. The story is told from the perspective of a child; Emma Donoghue’s decision to use five year-old Jack as her narrator added freshness to the story and built suspense in the plot.

Donoghue made the decision to write the novel in what I’ll refer to as “child-speak.” At times the language seems a bit sophisticated for a child so young but my disbelief that Jack could be so articulate is suspended by details Donoghue has provided—that Jack’s mother plays copious amounts of word games with him, he’s exposed to television, and he’s constantly asking her to define words he doesn’t understand. Jack’s speech is obviously a characterizing feature, but also assumes many craft functions in this novel.

For instance, there are times when his syntax creates suspense. About two hundred pages in, we learn what Jack means when he says, “I want some,” or “I have lots”—cryptic phrases that have no doubt piqued the reader’s interest and kept them reading on. Especially in the first half of the novel, Jack’s explanation of his surroundings kept me wondering where he and his mother were and I kept reading because I wanted to understand their situation. Had this novel been from Ma’s POV, I’m sure she would have just come out and said, “I’ve been trapped in an 11×11’ room for the past seven years and have borne my rapist’s son. I want out.” Although those words are shocking, I would have had no reason to continue reading because I already understood the problem, and I have very little concept of Jack’s relationship to Room.

The innocence of Jack’s perspective made the story all the more horrible. Old Nick “squeaking the bed” is repulsive to the reader because he/she can understand what’s happening beyond the doors of Wardrobe while a toddler is present. During these scenes, Jack seems uncomfortable but his thoughts are relatively calm, as if he’s accepted this situation as a perfectly normal lifestyle. He isn’t even aware of how robbed he’s been, which for most readers, is probably the most terrifying thing about this book.

The thing I thought was most brilliant about this novel was how much I was able to relate to Jack throughout, despite our difference in age. I remembered what it was like to be that young again. Though I thought the situation in Room was horrible, I was scared for he and Ma during The Great Escape and felt uncomfortable and awkward as I read through the second half of the novel, when Jack is exposed to Outside. I remember thinking Jack was a bright little kid when he was inside Room, but once he got out, I thought differently. I could see his gaps more plainly when he interacted with Outside people who’d been given a chance to develop properly, but even though my adult brain could fill in those gaps, I still felt behind.

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