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In Donoghue's 'Room,' A Child's World Of His Own

It isn't easy to talk about Room without giving too much away. The captivating novel by Irish writer Emma Donoghue is matter-of-factly narrated by a 5-year-old named Jack. The setting is an 11-by-11-foot room where he lives with his mother -- and when the book begins, it is the only world he has ever known.

"What Jack discovers early on -- which is a complete shock to him -- is that Room is not all there is," Donoghue tells NPR's Melissa Block. "He's spent five years thinking that he's in this world with his mother, and that outside there's outer space with stars and planets zooming around."

Jack thinks that he and his mother are the only two real humans, and Old Nick -- the man who visits every couple of nights -- is perhaps borderline human. In fact, Old Nick is their captor -- he kidnapped Jack's mother when she was 19. All that Jack reads in books and all he sees on TV he thinks is pure fiction. His discovery that they are prisoners shatters his worldview.

'A Tribe Of Two'

The Room itself is a character of its own in the novel -- it's capitalized, as is everything it contains -- Lamp, Toothpaste, Table. Donoghue says she did not want it to feel as though Jack and his mother were living a "stunted version" of the American lifestyle.

"I wanted to almost think of them as a tribe of two," Donoghue explains. "Room has a perfectly valid existence to Jack as a world. It doesn't seem small to him, because he's never experienced anything bigger. The Bath, the Bed, the Wardrobe, Under the Bed -- these are all separate sort of sub-landscapes for him, and every object in the room is his friend."

There are 10 books in the Room, of which five are children's books. Jack loves when his mother reads to him -- and makes sense of the world described in the book in this way:

'In The Position Of Their Captor'

Donoghue says that her own 5-year-old son, Finn, was a great help to her in finding the voice of her young narrator. Though Jack is a "very peculiar version of a 5-year-old," Donoghue wanted his speech to line up with the speech of any 5-year-old boy learning language in the real world.

"I charted my son's language," Donoghue explains. "I followed him around like an anthropologist -- writing down his strange grammar. And then I chose just a few of those classic 5-year-old traits to give to his speech. For instance, I love the way 5-year-olds try to make the past tense regular -- they all say, 'I eated! I winned!' "

Jack at 5 is unusually verbal because his mother has worked hard to teach him in spite of their extremely deprived circumstances. One game -- called "Parrot" -- shows how Ma makes creative use of the television as an educational tool.

"Ma has very mixed feelings about television," Donoghue says. "I sort of agonized over whether to allow them television or not. I was often in the position of their captor -- working out what they would be allowed to have and what they wouldn't."

Donoghue decided that Ma -- like many parents -- would allow TV, but would use it carefully, limited to just two shows a day. And she uses it as a linguistic coach for Jack.

"She will let him watch TV," Donoghue says, "and she'll suddenly press mute, and she'll ask him to repeat back the last sentence he's heard ... She wants him to be able to understand and repeat back words by someone who isn't her."

Ma coaches Jack on reading and writing, and even gets him to do yoga exercises -- "Preparing him for a world that she prays he will someday get to enter for real," Donoghue says.

'The Cruel Truth Of The World'

As Jack gets older, Ma gradually reveals to him more about the truth of their condition -- an experience that will ring familiar for any parent with young kids. Donoghue says most parents find themselves in the position of having to re-explain the Easter Bunny and other untruths to their children as they grow older.

"Before I had kids, I thought you should never lie to a kid," Donoghue says. "But now I've had them, I realize you almost lie to them by definition, because if you're trying to summarize something for your 1-year-old, you put it in very simple terms. You only gradually complicate the explanation as they get older."

Donoghue recalls the time her young son pointed to a horrific picture in a magazine that showed six people hanged by the neck. "What's that?" he asked. "Puppets," she answered.

There are moments as a parent, Donoghue says, when you simply cannot bear to tell your children the "cruel truth of the world" -- and Ma is a "concentrated version" of that.  She does not want Jack to grow up thinking that he's a prisoner -- and yet to keep that information from him is a betrayal. She has lied to him his whole life.

Like many of her characters, Donoghue says Jack lives inside her -- and now memories of her own relationship with her children are also woven into the book.

"I tried to take the common or garden experience of parenting," Donoghue explains, "and just by isolating it under a spotlight, I tried to bring out the true, crazy drama of parenting."

The parent-child bond, she says, is "the most unstable, unpredictable kind of love story -- and it's asymmetrical in that you will always worry for them, and they won't necessarily worry for you."

Parent-child relationships are often written in "banal and sentimental" ways, she says. "With Room, I was trying to capture the essential drama of parenting."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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