The shame of starting but not finishing a book: Room / Emma Donoghue

I have to confess. I didn’t finish this book. I spent a few days struggling to enjoy Room, written by Emma Donoghue. I tried, I really did, but at 100 pages in, I couldn’t see myself getting any more out of it. And that’s fine. Isn’t it?

Room is told from the point of view of Jack, a five year old boy who has been locked in a small room with his Ma all his life. He has no knowledge of the outside world, and has no connection with any other person apart from his mother. We learn that despite some awful past events (‘Ma’ was kidnapped and raped when nineteen by their captor, known by Jack as ‘Old Nick’) and less than ideal living conditions (confined to a small room, no access to outside, limited food supplies and luxury items), Ma still attempts to raise Jack into a relatively normal life. They have a routine involving ‘classes’ of physical exercise and learning and twice a day they watch television.


Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. “Was I minus numbers?”

“Hmm?” Ma does a big stretch. 

“Up in Heaven. Was I minus one, minus two, minus three-?”

“Nah, the numbers didn’t start till you zoomed down.”

“Through Skylight. You were all sad till I happened in your tummy.”

The opening to the book. Just reading that quote makes me a little angry.

It’s clearly a good book, and Donoghue a talented author. Nominated for the Man Booker prize, there are thousands who love this book. And it is well written. The difficulty and dedication needed to keep up the ‘five year old child speak’ throughout shows Room was a hugely ambitious title. All this before you consider the dark and controversial themes, allegedly inspired by the Joseph Fritzl case in Austria, 2008; the plot is certainly intriguing.

But however difficult it may have been to write, I found it just as difficult to read.

You know when a child gets over-excited and they are trying to tell you something and all these words come out that are completely irrelevant and you just want to shout enough of the horseshit, what happened? Well I got that a lot when reading this. It’s essentially the stream of consciousness of a five year old, with plenty of meandering, mundane observations that sometimes do but mostly don’t add a lot to the story.

As I mentioned in my post on The Violent Bear It Away a few weeks back, I’m working on a story involving a child protagonist. So Room naturally sounded like the ideal book to read, to get into the mind of a child. I’ve come away with two conclusions.

  1. A five year old protagonist is too young, for me anyway, to narrate in the first person. I admire Donoghue for attempting it – it’s brave and an interesting premise. But a 5 year old is going to naturally ask questions about everything. Whats this mum? Why? What? But what about this? Honestly, it became tiresome very quickly.
  2. The boy in my project I had imagined being about 10 years old, but I’m thinking of raising that to the lower teens. I don’t want my book to be full of childish ramblings, but I want to retain a naivety and innocence to this character. I will write in the third person, with some sections perhaps exposing the boy’s inner thoughts. But certainly nothing like the five year old Jack’s ‘Silly penis, sticking up again. I stick him down.’

I wasn’t put off by the disturbing themes. This was the most interesting aspect of the book, but it was dragged down by impossibly distracting dialogue. Some of Jack’s childish observations that hinted at sexual abuse tried to be subtle, but they really weren’t.

I feel an immense sense of guilt for having an opinion on a book that I didn’t actually finish. Is that allowed? Do I have that right? I’m not too sure. What I do know is if a book isn’t for you, why should you continue to read? There are millions of pieces of work out there waiting to be discovered and read. Make sure you read stuff that you love, rather than forcing yourself through something that, for one reason or another, isn’t your cup of tea.

I feel it’s the sort of book which you will love, or be unable to finish. Unfortunately you can probably guess where my feelings lie.

1 comment
  1. I was planning to read this. I’ve always admired the plot. But I have also dealt with super young narrators and protagonists in my readings. I agree with you that it does not help the progression of the story move as fast as one would like because of the seemingly endless curiosity of children, but I also think those books are the ones that should be finished because children are all about exploration and imagination so in reading stories from their point of view, the story almost becomes a Highlights puzzle. Whatever we can learn from this is here we just have to see the things that are hiding underneath the surface. In that stories hold more magical qualities, I think.

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