You've likely heard plenty of positive buzz about the film Room. From Brie Larson's Golden Globe to an Oscar nomination for best picture, critics are acknowledging the movie's moving affect on audiences. In an effort to jump on the bandwagon, I purchased the novel by Emma Donoghue and devoured it immediately. I anticipated a heart wrenching storyline told at a thrilling pace, but I didn't expect to feel so empowered as a female while reading.
One of the main characters, Ma, has been held in captivity for seven years in a heavily insulated garden shed. Because of her physical confinement, I assumed that she would not wield any agency whatsoever. She doesn't have a choice when her kidnapper, Old Nick, rapes her almost nightly, impregnating her twice. She doesn't have a choice when one of those pregnancies produces a healthy baby boy, Jack, to share in her imprisonment. She doesn't have a choice when her captor refuses to provide nutritious food because of the cost. She doesn't have a choice when her abductor punishes any minor deviance by cutting off their power for days at a time. But she does choose to shield her son from the rapes by convincing him to sleep inside the wardrobe. She does choose to embrace motherhood within those walls, viewing maternity as her salvation. She does choose to negotiate for vitamins and hold daily physical education time for her son, creatively maneuvering around the small space. She does choose to use the power cut as the basis for their eventual getaway. So much for no agency.
To my surprise, I found myself siphoning strength from this seemingly helpless character. At first glance, readers might be tempted to feel nothing more than sympathy towards Ma. She loses her "prime" years to Old Nick, who stole her at age nineteen. Even her freedom comes at a price, as the intrusive, albeit well-intentioned, community hounds her in the wake of emancipation. Her life is forever changed by one ruthless event that stood outside of her control. Of course, I pity the predicament, but I feel an even deeper sense of joy in her accomplishments. In Room, we have a character who doesn't give up even when the odds are completely stacked against her. We watch her turn escape tactics into a game for Jack's sake, like when they hold Thursday screaming sessions or when they flush notes down the toilet. We see her clutching to normalcy, as she refuses to become dependent on the painkillers provided for her aching tooth. We don't just see Ma's will to survive--we see her will to triumph.
And what better way to see that will expressed than through the eyes of a child? The most inspiring testament to Ma's eminence is the product of her parenthood: her son. Donoghue cleverly narrates the story via Jack's perspective. Despite having grown up in horrific, desolate conditions, he is polite, well spoken, good-natured, and inquisitive. He deeply respects his Ma, yet challenges her at appropriate times, like when she struggles with re-acclimation and attempts suicide. She is a human, after all, and a key element of her admirability is that she's not impervious to struggle. In her humanness, we can turn to her as an example--relating to the fact that she didn't raise Jack perfectly, she raised him in the best way that she knew how. She relies on her own feminine intuition because she doesn't have access to self-help books and Google guidance in childrearing. Just like any effective parent, she compromises in order to achieve the best possible outcome. For instance, she relents when he still wants to nurse at age five. She selflessly revisits the source of her trauma when Jack desires closure at the end of the novel. She makes these sacrifices for her son even though she holds the ultimate "get-out-of-responsibility, free" card, having gone through hell and back. Yet she doesn't allow Jack complete autonomy. She restricts his television time, even though there is such limited source of entertainment within Room. She takes "me-days" when she's feeling particularly down about her confinement. She insists that Jack takes the reins in their breakout, rebuffing his resistance with the age-old line-- "'I'm your mother...that means sometimes I have to choose for the both of us.'" These aren't selfish maneuvers-- they are necessary for some semblance of sanity and ultimately essential for their liberation. If her goal is not to merely survive but to flourish, she has to use those parental compromises to her advantage, steering Jack towards a life that is full of joys but not completely void of practicality.
Overall, I was delighted to discover that Donoghue's work is not just a regurgitation of tales that confine women to subservient, powerless positions. All too often we see stories of women in holes that they either can't or refuse to get out of. But Ma doesn't let the hole engulf her. She tells Jack, "'[Old Nick] thinks we're things that belong to him, because Room does.'" But she knows that she is no one's property; she refuses to become one man's object simply because he structures her world in a way that sharply diminishes her personhood. Donoghue juxtaposes Ma's physical impediments with her mental fortitude so that we can witness strength in the most unlikely character. Motherhood fuels her, and as a female reader, I feel empowered that I can belong to that special camp.
by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Company, $24.99
Published Sept. 13, 2010