'This book will break your heart'

FICTION: Drawing on harrowing real life cases of abduction and abuse, Emma Donoghue’s latest novel is charming, funny and unbearably…

FICTION:Drawing on harrowing real life cases of abduction and abuse, Emma Donoghue's latest novel is charming, funny and unbearably moving

Room,Emma Donoghue, Picador, pp321, £12.99

IN MARCINELLE, near the Belgian city of Charleroi, on May 28th, 1996, 12-year-old Sabine Dardenne was kidnapped by Marc Dutroux and imprisoned in a soundproofed concrete room in the basement of his house, where she was repeatedly raped and sexually abused during the 80 days that followed. The license plate of Dutroux’s car was partly identified by an eyewitness, and on August 13th, he was arrested and Sabine Dardenne was released.

In Strasshof an der Nordbahn, a lower Austrian town half an hour’s drive from Vienna, 10-year-old Natascha Kampusch was initially held by Wolfgang Priklopil in a small cellar beneath his garage, sealed by a steel door; later, she was allowed to spend increasing amounts of time in his house. Kampusch escaped on August 23rd, 2006, eight years after her kidnap. Priklopil committed suicide beneath the wheels of a train the same day.


In Amstetten, also in lower Austria, on August 29th, 1984, at the age of 18, Elisabeth Fritzl was drugged and hidden in an underground chamber in the basement of her family home. Over the 24 years that followed, she was abused and raped regularly by her father and bore him seven children, of whom six survive. When the eldest child, Kerstin, developed a grave kidney condition, Josef Fritzl brought her to hospital; within a week, Elisabeth, her remaining children and her mother were in care and her father was in prison.

Room, Emma Donoghue's extraordinary new novel, draws on the harrowing cases of Sabine Dardenne, Natascha Kampusch and Elisabeth Fritzl, and many of the details are true to one or another of their testimonies, as Donoghue freely acknowledges, but this is no semi-fictionalised wallow in the misery mire. Charming, funny, artfully constructed and at times almost unbearably moving, Donoghue mines material that on the face of it appears intractably bleak and surfaces with a powerful, compulsively readable work of fiction that defies easy categorization.

“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.”

A typical, if exceptionally bright, boy, Jack loves Dora The Explorerand his Ma. If he was made of cake he'd eat himself before somebody else could. He can read very well and green beans are his food enemy. Less typically, Jack has spent his entire life in an eleven by eleven foot room with no natural light apart from God's yellow face through Skylight, and he still feeds at his mother's breast. Not only has he never been outside, he thinks Room is an entire world in itself, and that people on TV are made of colours and don't really exist.

At night, when he is supposed to be asleep in Wardrobe, Old Nick appears. “In comes the cold air. If I had my head out of Wardrobe, there’d be Door opening, I bet I could see right into the stars and the spaceships and the planets and the aliens zooming around in UFOs. I wish I wish I wish I could see it.”

While Old Nick joins Ma in the bed, Jack counts the creaks. Jack doesn’t think Old Nick is real, but worries that if Ma lets him have some of Jack’s breast milk he might start getting “realer”.

Jack and Ma (we are never told her name) play every day except for the days when "Ma is Gone . . . she's here but not really. She stays in Bed with the pillows on her head." These days increase in frequency as reality becomes too much to bear. First Old Nick violently assaults Ma, then he lets the power lapse for three cold, dark, hungry days. Ma discovers that he has been laid off work for six months, and concludes that it's only a matter of time before his house is repossessed. The risk of discovery would place mother and son in even greater danger, so Ma hatches an escape plan in nine parts: Dead, Truck, Wriggle Out, Jump, Run, Somebody, Note, Police, Blowtorch.Jack, in the guise of his alter ego, Prince Robot Super JackerJack Mr Five, agrees to attempt the plan.

The world of the book is reflected entirely through Jack's eyes, and rendered in his endlessly inventive and idiosyncratic stream of consciousness. There are echoes of the first pages of Joyce's Portraithere, made explicit, with perfect timing, on Ma and Jack's first morning of freedom at the hospital: "First it's warm, then it gets cold."

“This isn’t Room,” Jack notes with alarm from the discomfort of a wet bed. The transition to Outside proves no less complicated for Ma; while Jack pines for the certainties of Room, where God’s face was in the skylight and everything had its own name, Ma is assailed by the prurient attentions and impertinent demands of assorted journalists, well-wishers and cranks, not to mention the unpredictable members of her own family. Gradually, like mediaeval time travellers catapulted into modernity, they begin to adjust, both to the wider world and to the painful but necessary separation of mother from growing child.

Part childhood adventure story, part adult thriller, Roomis above all the most vivid, radiant and beautiful expression of maternal love I have ever read. Emma Donoghue has stared into the abyss, honoured her sources and returned with the literary equivalent of a great Madonna and Child. This book will break your heart.

Declan Hughes is a novelist and playwright. His latest novel, City Of Lost Girls,is published by John Murray

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a playwright, novelist and critic