Room is one of the most fresh, terrifyingly good novels I've read this year, but it's anything but precious. Room works for three reasons: 1) The originality of five-year-old Jack's voice. 2) The originality of the story itself. 3) How these two combine to create a work of fiction that leaves its readers absolutely floored.
First, Jack's voice: He narrates the story as any normal five-year-old would. He's curious. He's unintentionally funny. And he negotiates some pretty tricky existential questions. (Is Room still there if we're not in it?) But my favorite part of Jack's voice is how he points out the absurdity of things we often take for granted. For instance, Jack hits his head, an adult says "careful," and Jack wonders, "Why do persons only say that after the hurt?" Also, Jack explaining lottery tickets: "The little cards with numbers all over are called a lottery, idiots buy them hoping to get magicked into millionaires." That one slayed me!
Secondly, Donoghue's plot is bold. A woman is kidnapped and forced to live in a shed in the backyard of the kidnapper's house. She has a son by her kidnapper. The son lives the first five years of his life in captivity with his mother. Donoghue says the plot was inspired by real-world events. But imagining what that ordeal must have been like to someone who doesn't consider it an ordeal but as simple reality, and then telling it as realistically as it seems, is a tremendous literary feat. The only thing I'll say about the rest of the plot — and normally I hate when reviewers do this, but I can't think of a book for which this is more true — is that the less you know about it, the more rewarding your reading experience. That's how it was for me. But know this: It's not always smooth emotional sailing. It can be dark, it can be incredibly sad, and it can be frightening, in the sense of getting a glimpse at humanity's worst. That's really what I mean by "terrifyingly good."
Finally, the combination of Jack's voice and the creativity of the plot make for a novel that unpacks in such a way that we, as adults, learn about the world along with Jack. Inasmuch as any five-year-old can come of age, we practically come of age with him. It takes Jack's innocent perspective for us to see things like evil, celebrity, family and friendship in new and interesting lights. Additionally, the strength of the mother-son bond in the worst of circumstances comes through extraordinarily clearly as the plot unfolds. The connection could not possibly have been so strongly rendered with an omniscient narrator, or really even if the mother had been telling the story.
I can't recommend this book more highly. Because Room was on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, I took a flier on it and am absolutely delighted I did. Simply put, Room's one of the best novels of 2010.
(The title quote is from a TS Eliot poem. It is quoted by a character in Room, and is a near-perfect seven-word representation of the book.)