The Forbidden Experiment has long tantalized linguists, anthropologists and psychologists for the possible insights into the human mind and sociality it could uncover. The experiment involves raising a child in isolation to study how his or her mind develops in the absence of other people; it is forbidden, of course, because of the moral and ethical concerns of depriving a child in such a way.
The plot of Emma Donoghue’s “Room” isn’t quite the Forbidden Experiment, but it comes close, and she executes the fiction as well as any hypothetical or thought experiment could be expected. The narrator is Jack, who turns five years old in the first pages. It quickly becomes apparent that something is not quite right in his world; inanimate objects are referred to as proper nouns: Wardrobe, Bed, Plant, Meltedy Spoon. When Ma, Jack’s mother, points out snow on Skylight that’s blocking “God’s yellow face,” Jack says, “There’s a little bit of light at Skylight’s top, the rest of her is all dark. TV snow’s white but the real isn’t, that’s weird.”
Filtered through the innocent Jack’s perception, subtle clues and hints begin to add up to a sinister image. There’s no way to discuss the novel without revealing the basic premise, but the novel’s conceit is quickly expunged and so little is lost by a brief description. Jack casually illustrates details and daily routines with Ma that don’t quite add up: he clearly believes all reality exists within the 11-by-11-foot room they occupy; Scream, when they both yell at the top of their lungs and then listen closely (“You never know,” Ma says, the explanation slipping off Jack like he’s made of Teflon); Jack occasionally wakes at night to Ma flicking Lamp on-off-on-off-on-off, clearly signaling for help through Skylight.
Over many pages what is cleverly revealed is that Ma (real name unknown) was kidnapped seven years ago at the age of 19 and locked by her captor, known only as Old Nick, in a soundproof, escape-proof shed in his backyard. The skylight includes a shatter-proof mesh. The floors cover a chain link fence that makes digging out impossible. The door is operated by an electronic keypad, and Old Nick isn’t sharing the code. Descriptions of their captor coming to rape Ma almost every night — an act, thankfully, not at all understood by Jack, who hides in Wardrobe — are disturbing enough until one does the math and realizes that Old Nick must be Jack’s biological father.
Soon enough Ma makes it clear that they aren’t safe any longer because their captor lost his job and has been unable to find new work. Keeping up a backyard prison while feeding two mouths, even when you undernourish them, is costly, and Ma fears the bank foreclosing his house because Nick would then be forced to kill them. Despite the obvious horrors they face, Donoghue makes identifying with the child narrator not only easy but compulsory. Jack is impressively optimistic, obviously a byproduct of his youthful innocence and yet a trait that makes him honestly endearing. In fact, Jack’s comfort in Room is so sympathetic Ma’s talk of escape begins to sound both nutty and frightening. Leaving Room means leaving behind literally the only place he has lived in his entire life, as well as the cast of objects for which he has created supplementary personalities. Room (and “Room”) are claustrophobic and claustrophilic simultaneously.
“Room” is deceptively simple. Even throwaway details inform the deeply empathic story. In one sense “Room” is about the choices an imprisoned mother must make; as she notes when defending raising Jack to believe the universe consists solely of Room, what was she supposed to tell him, a whole fun world existed but that he could have no part in it? That lie, as much as it was meant to protect Jack, also served to protect Ma. Making Jack believe the images on TV are not real (including Dora the Explorer, Jack’s favorite cartoon, as apparently Dora is the favorite even of unsocialized, imprisoned children) limits their worldview to Room, and thus limits the anxiety and despair that would come with a full realization of their situation.
Donoghue’s prose seems crude and reductionist at times, but it is a true challenge to write earnestly and authentically in a child’s voice — especially one in so psychologically unusual a condition. The language Jack develops is also insufficient to properly describe the world at large and his experiences in it, but again this only serves to reflect Jack’s alien feelings toward the world. “Room” presents an allegory — personal, political, societal — wherein the past seems idyllic but in truth was dangerous and disturbing. Nevertheless, we, like Jack and Ma, have to move forward into a world that’s larger than we can imagine, one frightening in its diversity and seeming infinity but a world ultimately safer and healthier than our limited origins.