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In many ways, Jack is your typical 5-year-old — energetic, curious, talkative, affectionate. He likes TV’s Dora the Explorer, the picture book Dylan the Digger and jumping on the bed. Hates green beans. Because he’s being home-schooled by his loving mother, Jack’s way ahead of the game with numbers, letters and colors. He’s very bright.

But as readers of Emma Donoghue’s riveting novel Room soon learn, Jack may seem ordinary but his circumstances are extraordinary. His mother was kidnapped as a college student, and for seven long years she’s been imprisoned in a fortified garden shed where her captor visits her at night.

 Jack calls him “Old Nick,” and has caught glimpses of him through the slats in the wardrobe where he sleeps. Still, Jack is pretty sure Old Nick is real, like him and Ma and Plant and Bed, everything in Room. Everything else is Outside. The people on TV aren’t real. They live on other planets.

 “Air’s real and water only in Bath and Sink,” Jack thinks, “rivers and lakes are TV, I don’t know about the  sea because if it whizzed around Outside it would make everything wet….Room is real for real.”

Room the book is real for real too, achingly real, thanks to Donoghue’s ability to get inside Jack’s head and tell the ripped-from-the headlines story in his words. (She came up with the idea after reading about the Elizabeth Fritzl case but had finished Room before Jaycee Dugard was discovered). Generally, I’d be wary of  reading most any tale told by a 5-year-old, especially one as potentially exploitative as this. But I know how Donoghue has beautifully twisted fairy tales in Kissing the Witch, and how she spun fantastic short stories out of historical footnotes in The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits. An actual scandal in 1860s Britain led to her domestic thriller The Sealed Letter.  Her other novels, including Slammerkin and Life Masks, are equally impressive, well-researched and well-written.

This tale is in its telling — Jack is irresistible — but also in the way it’s structured. Jack’s Ma realizes they must escape, and Jack “uses up his brave in Plan B” to make it happen. Having left Room behind, Jack and Ma must make the difficult transition to Outside. They initially stay in a clinic until their immune systems can be adapted. Jack confronts stairs and grass and relatives. The paparazzi descends. Sunburn. Bee stings. Worst of all, Jack must learn to share Ma.

Jack belongs to Ma; Ma belongs to Jack. One of their favorite picture books (they had five in Room) was Margaret Wise Brown’s  The Runaway Bunny, the classic about the enduring bond between mother and child. Brown’s brisk last line, “Have a carrot” saves the story from sentimentality. Donoghue takes note, and so her Room echoes that story and also Goodnight Moon, but she doesn’t sugar-coat the damage that’s been done. 

“When I was four I didn’t know about the world, or I thought it was only stories,” Jack thinks. “Then Ma told me about it for real and I thought I knowed everything. But now I’m in the world all the time, I actually don’t know much, I’m always confused.”

Welcome home, Jack.   

Open Book: Emma Donohue’s novel Room is published in the United States by Little, Brown, which sent me an advance reading copy. Both Little, Brown and Harper Collins Canada have trailers for Room; both are good, but I like the Harper Collins one best, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8rj2otXNfM&feature=player_embedded

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