A 19-year-old college student is abducted by an ogre and held captive for seven years in a secure 11-foot-square chamber: Emma Donoghue’s “Room” has the makings of an unbearably tense thriller. The surprise is how much more than that it is -- gripping but also affecting and, believe it or not, sweet.
Donoghue’s inspiration is the terrible case of Elisabeth Fritzl, the Austrian woman who finally escaped from her dungeon in 2008 after being imprisoned by her father for 24 years and bearing him seven children. (According to recent reports, she’s doing well.)
The kidnapper in “Room” isn’t the father but a gruesome stranger, and there’s only one child -- the wide-eyed Jack, who narrates the story and becomes its hero. It’s this device that gives “Room” its startling tenderness.
For Jack’s mother, Room (as Jack calls it) is a nightmare without end. But for Jack, who begins his account on his fifth birthday (“when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra”), Room is the world. And it’s a world of wonder. It holds Rug and Rocker and Watch and Shelf and Floor and Bed and Roof and Door, which opens only to admit and discharge the sinister figure Jack knows as Old Nick, the shadow of fear and evil in his otherwise bright universe.
Keeping Jack happy and curious under these conditions is his mother’s mission. She acts as schoolteacher and gym coach and gatekeeper of the TV, doing her best to explain the outside world it shows without letting on to Jack that he’s a prisoner.
The challenge of bringing him up has rescued her from the hell of loneliness and kept her sane. But bad teeth give her constant pain -- Old Nick is stingy with the analgesics, as he is with everything.
And he has begun behaving in a way that chills her even more than usual. She dreads his nightly visits, but she knows that if they ever stop, Room will turn into Tomb.
Donoghue’s finest accomplishment may be the creation of Jack’s voice, for which she uses a language that suggests childishness while relaying psychological inflections and plot complications that Jack can’t comprehend:
“Lunch is bean salad, my second worst favorite. After nap we do Scream every day but not Saturdays or Sundays. We clear our throats and climb up on Table to be nearer Skylight, holding hands not to fall. We say, ‘On your mark, get set, go,’ then we open wide our teeth and shout holler howl yowl shriek screech scream the loudest possible. Today I’m the most loudest ever because my lungs are stretching from being five.
“Then we shush with fingers on lips. I asked Ma once what we’re listening for and she said just in case, you never know.”
“Room,” Donoghue’s seventh novel, was just shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. If I haven’t gone more deeply into the plot, that’s because it’s a nail-biter and I don’t want to give away any of the suspense. All I’ll say is that I forced myself to put the book down and turn off the light at 2 a.m. Three hours later, I gave in and turned it on again.
“Room” is from Little, Brown (321 pages, $24.99). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)