Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 22, 2010

Room, by Emma Donoghue #BookReview

My fellow-blogger Tony over at Tony’s Book World has just ‘burst the bubble’ on Stoner by John Edward Williams and I thought as I pondered my reaction to the Booker longlisted and much-hyped Room  that I too would be ‘bursting a bubble’.  The Guardian was impressed, and some of my bookish friends had urged me to read it, but it turns out that this book is a divisive choice for the Booker longlist and I am not alone in my disappointment at all. 

I had some niggling doubts from the start.  The blurbers were John Boyne, Anita Niffenegger, and Anita Shreve, (all authors I avoid) and now that I’ve read it I’m surprised they didn’t bring Jodi Piccoult in as well.  On the other hand, Michael Cunningham admired it, and he’s the author of The Hours, which I thought a very fine book indeed.  

Anyway, the blurb advises that it is best to read it in a single sitting, and so I did, four hours of my Sunday morning.  And I did not care for it at all, and for much the same reasons as Kevin from Canada and John Self at Asylum.

For those who have escaped the hype, Room is the story of a woman abducted and kept imprisoned in a secure room where her child is born.  She raises him, as best she can, filling their days with games and songs and routines.  The story is told entirely from the five-year-old Jack’s point-of-view so what happens is filtered by a child’s understanding, and by his lack of experience about what is normal.   It was reminiscent of One Foot Wrong by Sophie Laguna (see my thoughts about that one) and it turns out that Donoghue specialises in writing the kind of book that arouses distaste. (See the Irish Publishing News).  

I found the child narrator tedious and annoying, I thought the plot spectacularly unconvincing, and the ending contrived.   Great slabs of text I found boring (and scampered through them without apparent loss). 

For me, a book has failed if I find myself ‘outside the story’ trying to write the plot for the author, and that’s what happened.  Ok, victim and kid in secure shed somewhere, what comes next?  How is the author going to resolve this? 

But more than anything it felt like an unedifying experience to be reading it. Voyeuristic, distasteful, exploiting a celebrity victim.  Genre fiction at its worst. Don’t bother.

PS 12.10.10

James Wood at the LRB expresses the same reservations, much more eloquently.

Author: Emma Donoghue
Title: Room
Publisher: Picador 2010
Source: Personal library, purchased from Top Titles Brighton $32.99.


  1. Thanks for your thoughts Lisa. I’ve heard a bit of the hype about this one, and didn’t really think that it sounded like my cup of tea. Yes I’ve read news articles about these poor unfortunate girls imprisoned by monsters like this. Do I want to read a novel about it? Probably not. I rarely get to read a book straight through, ok well, maybe with a picture book (but I have fallen asleep through those too fairly regularly). I’m excited if I get to plow through a book in a couple of days, let alone in one sitting. I do envy you your 4 hour book reading experience, even if you found the book lacking.

    • Louise, talking of celebrity scary stories, I’ve been meaning to tell you, there’s a really nice children’s book called Lost, A True Tale from The Bush (which you could probably get through in a couple of hours LOL). It was on the CBCA shortlist and my classes were very impressed by it. It’s about three children who were lost in the bush in 1864 but survived. It’s told as a narrative, but it’s also interspersed with facts about how to survive in the bush. It’s beautifully presented, and would make a really nice gift for someone’s birthday or Xmas. Lisa

    • Lisa, you lost me when you admitted to another blogger that you have never read anything by Niffenger! Yes. the Time Traveller’s Wife sounds ridiculous but I gave it a go anyway and loved it. As for this book….. I couldn’t put it down but expected more from the ending. A 6 out of 10 for me.

      • Oh, don’t say that, Katharine, I’d hate to lose you, I love chatting with you here *big smile*.

  2. *A-hem* I loved this book, as you know, and while I can see that some people haven’t fallen for its charm, I think it’s a book you need to engage with on an emotional level for it to work.

    I’m more interested in hearing your views on Shreve, Boyne and Niffenegger, though. What puts you off? I’ve read much of Shreve’s back catalogue, and while she’s no literary heavyweight, I do think she gets short shrift. She has an ear for a good story and she never tells them in straightforward, formulaic ways. People tend to view her quite snobbily (is that a word?), which is unfair. I think she’s very good and have no hesitation in proclaiming that on my blog!

    • *chuckle* Kim, I was so cross about a book that I paid $32.99 for, and spent my precious Sunday morning reading it… well, I just couldn’t help myself! Maybe I don’t do emotional engagement very well, I think the last time I cried at the movies was Gone With the Wind when I was 16. Then again, maybe as I’ve said above I really don’t like people exploiting other people’s sad life stories *while they’re still alive to be bothered by it*. Sonya Hartnett did this too in one her books, I forget which one, alluding to the story of The Beaumont Children, and I thought it was cruel to their still grieving parents who just want a bit of privacy at this time in their lives, not to have it raked up all over again with more publicity in the media because someone’s written a book about it. Helen Garner is another one who does this too. I mean, it’s bad enough to have such horrible things happen to you or your loved ones without other people appropriating your story, pandering to public curiosity and making money out of it. Anyway, Shreve, yes I’ve read 3 of hers and rated them 6s and 7s, so I’ve given her a fair go. It’s not that her stuff is no good, it’s just I want that indefinable something more from my reading than that. I actually quite liked The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas as a YA effort, but I’m not really interested in YA. And Niffeneger, well I’ll be fair, I haven’t read anything of hers. I just thought that the plot of The Time Traveller’s Wife just sounded too silly and – I can’t help it, I’m instantly suspicious of anyone who gets a massive publisher’s advance. It means they expect to sell squillions of books and be another *shudder* Dan Brown phenomenon. Lisa (unrepentant LOL)

  3. Hi Lisa,
    I thought Donoghue’s ‘Slammerkin’ was excellent, and “The Room” was near the top of my upcoming reading list. Thanks a lot, I might just read “The Room” to find out for myself.

    • I look forward to seeing what you think of it, Tony!

  4. Interesting isn’t it, how a book can get such different views. I guess that whenever we try to do anything a bit ‘on the edge’ we run the risk of polarising readers.

    The new novel I’ve just started on is a bit like that, a risky subject matter – but if we don’t take risks as writers, we might not ever write anything worthwhile.

  5. Blimey, we had polar opposite reactions to reading this book, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts to it and at least you were on one side of the fence rather than just on it full stop.

    I do think its going to be a book that people love or loathe though, one of those Marmite jobs.

  6. True, Simon, true, this seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it book, and what fun it is to be sparring on opposite sides of the fence!

  7. Thanks for the Lost! recommendation. I actually saw it at the Childrens Book Week display at my local library. It’s amazing for them to have so many of the winners already processed- and ready for borrowing next week. I’ll try and check it out. Have to do battle with The Three Musketeers first. It’s such a long book, and because my reading is so ponderously slow I do struggle.

    I forgot to tell you too that I recently read Donoghue’s The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits. It’s a collection of short stories rather than a novel. As with any collection of short stories some were Incredible, some were fairly ordinary. Sadly I was disappointed in the title story, even though that was the exact reason that I bought the book in the first place. I’d heard about the story of Mary Toft a year or two ago, and become fascinated. Mary got me so intrigued that I even did a blog post on her at the time. I’d thought a bit about her and so when my imaginings didn’t really fit with the story that Donoghue wrote I naturally preferred my own musings.

    • Gosh, Louise! The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits?? Maybe I should give Donoghue another go with a short story? But from the library. Not with my money!

  8. Oh, okay then, Lisa, you are off the hook! *chuckle*

    The Sonya Hartnett book was “Of A Boy”, which I read earlier this year and loved. I guess the other side of the coin is that instead of profiteering from those true-life stories they are keeping them alight in the public’s consciousness. I mean there must be two entire generations and more now who wouldn’t even know who the Beaumont children are!

  9. Lisa, thanks for the review. I somewhat agree with Kim’s comment about keeping true-life stories alive. However, I also think that these true-life stories must serve only an inspiration. The writers have to do more with the reality and write stories that are also transforming, from any angle that they choose.

  10. Let me know if you have any trouble finding Rabbits Lisa, I can send you my copy.

  11. I know what you mean, Kinna, authors write the stories they have to write, it’s the way writing works.
    The trouble is, that publishers are (as they should be, for their shareholders) motivated by making money, and so they promote books which are tacky because there’s public interest in tacky stories and so they make lots of money out of it.
    But I haven’t forgotten the outrage and upset that I felt when the media took an interest in a crime that I was an indirect victim of, and I think there’s also a public interest in self-censorship sometimes.

  12. That’s very kind of you, Louise. I’ll look for Rabbits when I get back from O/S and perhaps take you up on your generous offer.

  13. […] to Room by Emma Donoghue, but it is certainly generating much comment.  Lisa @ ANZLitLovers disliked it immensely.  The Guardian newspaper has been more generous in its […]

  14. Lisa, I just finished and reviewed this book myself. While I enjoyed it more than you did, I agree completely about the narrative voice. There is no reason why an apparently intelligent 5 year old would speak that way (did I mention I’m a retired speech pathologist?). What I did like was the inventive ways that Donoghue found for Ma to keep a young child active and engaged in his environment – and the fact that she wasn’t overly-salacious about the goings on with Old Nick!

    • Hi Weekend Reader, thanks for taking the time to comment:)
      I think that one of the things that bothered me most about this book was the ‘inventive ways that Donoghue found for Ma to keep a young child active and engaged in his environment’. I would, of course, like to think that the real-life victim on whom the story was based was able to rise above the horror of her situation and do this, but I felt that this was an idealised portrait of what a mother could and *should* be in a ghastly situation like this. Could she really have sustained that level of self-restraint to make a fantasy world to protect her child? I think she might well have tried, but I don’t think she could have sustained it. The stress of the situation, the ghastly loneliness, the hopelessness year after year, the lack of experience about mothering in general, the loss of her own freedom and her own youth would make it almost impossible to be so very selfless.
      So I worry that if – amongst all the other things this victim has to come to terms with – this young woman now sees that there’s an expectation that she should have been a perfect mother too, this book adds to her burden.

  15. […] “I found the child narrator tedious and annoying, I thought the plot spectacularly unconvincing, and the ending contrived. Great slabs of text I found boring (and scampered through them without apparent loss).” ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]

  16. The writer is Irish…she just lives in Canada.

    • Hi Ed, thanks for this: it’s very tricky trying to identify nationality these days.
      But (as I dimly recall doing when I categorised this post) I looked the author up at Wikipedia – and it says she has been a Canadian citizen since 2004.

  17. […] Since reading Room (not a book to brighten anyone’s life) I’ve discovered how controversial the book was in 2010. Apparently, you either love it or hate it. Lisa Hill, a friend and well respected reviewer is in the latter category and her adverse review can be read here. […]

  18. Reblogged this on Call me Ms. Bibliophile and commented:
    Exactly how I feel about this book. It was downright annoying and I just couldn’t like it. The plot had stalled as well.

    • Thank you for the compliment! I hope your next book is more enjoyable:) Happy reading, Lisa

      • You’re welcome! Let’s hope so too :)

  19. […] starter book is Room by the Emma Donoghue, an international bestseller that (as you can tell from my review) I loathed.  I think I had to read it for a book group I belonged to.  So my first choice for […]

  20. […] starter book is Room by the Emma Donoghue, an international bestseller that (as you can tell from my review) I loathed.  I think I had to read it for a book group I belonged to.  So my first choice for […]

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