Mel's Online Book Club: Room By Emma Donoghue

Posted at 15:43pm on 6th February 2012

What could have been better, on an icy evening last week, than meeting with my Book Club in the home of friends, with a roaring fire, and a great book to discuss?  We'd been reading Emma Donoghue's novel, Room, and without exception we agreed that we had thoroughly enjoyed the read!

Nevertheless, during our discussion, at least two of us admitted to having reached a point when we'd seriously wondered where the book was going, and nearly given up reading.  Fortunately, we were saved in the nick of time by a plot development and a change in tempo.


Writing from the Point of View (POV) of a five year old boy, Jack, the author, Emma Donoghue, shows remarkable observation.  An engaging and endearing child, it soon becomes apparent that Jack is either very knowledgeable, or of above average intelligence.  With only two characters on page for the first half of the book, you might think that dialogue would be lacking - but you'd be wrong.


With a narrative that includes Jack's observation of some ants which: "Ma splatted . . . so they wouldn't eat our food.  One minute they were alive and the next minute they were dirt," and his reaction: "I cried so my eyes nearly melted off," who could fail to be charmed.  Emma Donoghue's perception of a five-year old's thought and speech patterns was excelled only by her writing techniques.


The plot must, surely, we thought, have been inspired by the true-life account of an Austrian girl who was kidnapped and kept in a garden room as a sex slave.  Certainly, there were plenty of similarities, but this is no way detracts from Donoghue's story-telling skills.  The reader is taken through "Ma's" survival procedures, which include daily exercise routines, disciplined TV watching periods, cleanliness, and a healthy diet.  It's clear that this girl is not dumb.


For Jack, who has never known anything but the Room, his Ma's strategy is to convince him that everything else - like TV - is "pretend".  In this way, his natural curiosity is both met, and curbed.  He is content with the reality that he knows and accepts.  Consequently, when an escape plan is hatched - and proves successful - Jack is not at all sure that Room is not a better place to be than the world.

This aspect of the book triggered some lively discussion.  Was Room a metaphor for our comfort zone, we wondered?  Were there aspects of our lives - culturally, mentally, spiritually, emotionally - that we insisted were reality when, in reality, they might be pretend?  Are we, sometimes, in denial about other people's reality?


This raised the question as to whether one person's "normality" could ever be called "abuse".  In other words, could one say that Jack had been mistreated?   After all, one Book Club member pointed out, he had never known anything else so, for him, living alone with his mother in a garden room was perfectly normal.

This, we decided, was dangerous ground.  Incest, paedophilia, rape, genital mutilation, and slavery are, or have at some time or other, been considered "normal" in some races and creeds.  Does this give them merit?

Definitely not!  As has been said before, some absolutes are - absolute!  And unlawful imprisonment - which was the abuse suffered by the child - goes against every human right in the book.

With some members of the Book Club having returned, that day, from supporting a young man threatened with deportation, having been trafficked to this country as a child, this seemed a fitting place to end our discussion of Emma Donoghue's novel, Room.  It was an enjoyable read, but more than that, we had all found the book to have thrown light on a topic quite outside our own experience.


As always, your comments are invited - more than that, welcomed - on this, Mel's Online Book Club.  Whether or not you have read Emma Donoghue's novel, Room, the issues raised are common to all of us.  If you have an opinion on any of those discussed, do share it so that we may all benefit.  If you've read the book and prefer to comment on the author's writing style or techniques, that too, is valid.  Reading is such a solitary pursuit, but a reading group discussion enhances the experience no end.  Be part of something bigger than the reality you inhabit.

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This Book Club Précis, Questions or Discussion Summary may be reproduced in printed format or on any non-commercial website or blog on condition that the following copyright line and bio are prominently displayed beneath it.

© Copyright Mel Menzies: USED BY PERMISSION
Author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies runs an Online Book Club and is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV. This article, in its original form, can be found at

Your Comments:

6th February 2012
at 8:12pm
I enjoyed the book, but I wondered about the closeness to the Austrian kidnap news story, and felt that it "cashed in" on this event... which made me a bit wary.

It was extremely clever of the writer to circumnavigate the"nastiness" of the woman being kept in this way by viewing the whole thing from the child's innocent viewpoint, and allowed her to explore the coping mechanisms without dwelling on the exploitation and the sick mind of the kidnapper. That was good, she didn't indulge in "darkness" but rather wrote of the triumph of the human spirit, one which was not sullied and spoilt by the horrible circumstances, and of the strength the woman gained from having her child to care for,regardless of who his father was.
6th February 2012
at 8:24pm
Spot on, Clare! You're absolutely right. The choice of POV was inspired because it brought out the valiant, triumphant nature of the human spirit when up against the forces of darkness. Thanks so much for bringing that out.
Tim Chow
1st February 2015
at 10:56pm
You mentioned that the book club brought up the topic of Room possibly being a metaphor for our comfort zones. This sounds interesting. Furthermore, what would that make the outside? Say a 'discovery' of one breaking free of this comfort zone? If possible could you expand on this point please?

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