Any mother who has struggled to entertain a baby on a long airplane ride or occupy a toddler for hours in a doctor's waiting room has a faint hint of one of the many challenges facing the young mom in Room, a new book by Irish-Canadian Emma Donoghue. The harrowing novel is about a 5-year-old boy and his 26-year-old mother, who has been trapped in an 11-by-11-foot backyard, soundproofed shed for seven years, ever since a bad man they refer to as Old Nick kidnapped her when she was a college student.
With Jack narrating the tale through the prism of a 5-year-old's naïve, curious mind, the story is both horrifying thriller and a psychological study on the effects of captivity on the human body. Shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, Room has major, well-deserved buzz. (Once you pick it up, I defy you to try to put it down.) The book was inspired by Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man who in 2008 was discovered to have kept his daughter and the children he fathered with her in a secret basement room. As the gripping story races along, it raises philosophical questions about the meaning of freedom, the daunting task of too many choices and the incredible strength of human perseverance.
But, ultimately to me, this is a book about motherhood. I won't give anything away, but I will tell you that despite the disturbing premise, there are moments of hope and beauty in this story. Donoghue's son was 4 when she started writing Room and she has the amusing jumbled language of a toddler down to a heart-breaking T.
Like many mothers, Jack's Ma tries to protect her child from early exposure to evil. She secrets him away to sleep in a wardrobe at night so he's hidden when Old Nick makes his unpredictable nighttime visits. Like the father in the movie Life Is Beautiful, Jack's Ma creates an imaginative, albeit false, world out of their imprisonment. She fills their long stretch of days and years with activities and games to help her son make sense of their tiny universe. To Jack, their room is the entire world. Like most toddlers, he is happy and content with the nonstop nearness of mom.
We only catch a hint of the wear-and-tear on Ma through Jack's idyllic perspective, but any mother can identify with the sheer exhaustion and mind-numbing existence of being one-on-one over and over again with a small child – and the bittersweet, frustrating crazy love and interdependence that spawns. This may well be a stay-at-home mom's worst nightmare taken to terrifying extremes. While his mother wrestles with depression and demons far beyond his realm, Jack's existence contributes at times to her malaise, but he also is the sole reason she stays strong, sane and purposeful.
Some people call it responsibility, love or duty. But whether you're confined in a small room or a 5,000-square-foot mansion, it's still called being a mom.