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Jack is 5 years old; he lives with his mother in the room. He has lived there all his life. They have never left the room, so it is all he knows. Now that he is five, he is more curious about the world and he is starting to understand that the world extends beyond the room. Jack is linguistically precocious which is a good job for the reader, since Jack narrates the story. He knows lots of words even though he does not always use them in the right way. In particular, he does not use "a" or "the" because he never needed to when he was in the room. He also has distinctive phrases for some things -- the sun is "God's face," and when he wants to breast feed, he simply asks "can I have some?" They only have five books to read, but there is a TV that they watch sometimes, but she tells him that TV will rot his brain. Nevertheless, on the days when Jack's mother lies in bed without ever getting up, he can watch it all day. At night, Jack sleeps in the wardrobe, and often Old Nick enters through the steel door operated by a combination, bringing supplies and getting into the bed. Once Old Nick has gone, Jack comes out from the wardrobe and can be with his mother again.
Eventually Jack and his mother get out into the world and their story is national news. They hide away from the reporters, trying to maintain privacy and adjust to the world. Jack's mother eventually tells her story to the press and is reunited with her family, although her father had given her up for dead. It is an extremely difficult time for both of them. Everyone assumes that Jack must be relieved to be out of the room, but he does not know how to interact with other children or adults, and he hates to spend any time away from his mother. One of the most uncomfortable parts of the novel is not when Jack's life is in danger or his mother is enduring sex with Old Nick, but is when some other family members take Jack to the mall. They go in for one thing, and get side-tracked, and end up getting other things they don't need, and not getting what they went in for. The expedition ends badly. It's a sign that nobody apart from his mother understands Jack's needs, and furthermore, that for all the weirdness and claustrophobia of their old room, they were able to lead a controlled life, while on the outside, they are confronted by forces beyond their control. Jack's unusual first five years give him, and so also the reader, a new perspective on the familiar world.
Arguably, Donoghue overplays this element: there are times when Jack's observations about the strange ways of adults verge into the territory of 'kids say the darnedest things.' This feeling is heightened by the performance of the unabridged audiobook by four readers. The words of adults are read in adult voices, even though Jack is telling the story. But the part of Jack is read in the voice of a five year old boy by one of the women readers, and it does not quite work. Jack's combination of naivety and wisdom feels like the author's device, and the reading can feel artificial. Nevertheless, for the most part, it is a gripping story that makes you wonder what the effects of growing up in such a confined space would actually have on a young child and how he could adjust to the world outside.
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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