Emma Donoghue




Sort of impossible to review this book without spoilers, so you have been warned.


Initially it’s intriguing, forcing all these questions, ‘Why don’t they leave the room? Has there been a holocaust? Is she a criminal hiding out? Some persecuted racial minority?’ Donoghue cleverly drops little hints here and there so we can get a picture of the scenario – and of the appalling nature of what’s become normal. It’s a bold move to restrict your setting to a single room and two/two and a half characters. Even more bold to narrate entirely from the perspective of a (precocious) five year old, which is initially enchanting, and often perceptive, giving a valid alternative interpretation of events we don’t really ‘see’ because of our socialisation – it does also bring home the way that Jack is ‘Ma’s ‘salvation’: someone who can introduce magic and humanity back into this bleak, repetitive setting.


It did start to drag for me, though, after a few chapters, and I was worried she was going to stoically maintain it for the entire novel. Thank goodness we had an escape, and something like half the story being an exploration of reintegration and lingering damage. Hats off to Donoghue for moving well beyond the simple happy ending/revenge Hollywood motif, and for developing a range of layered, authentic characters, all revealed though Jack’s voice. Still, for me this didn’t grab me as a novel – more as several exercises, or one extended exercise. An impressive exercise, and one showing much skill as a writer – but it felt, I don’t know, more like a reflection than a story.


February 2016