Emma Donoghue, Room, Picador, 9780330519014, $32.99

Only a few days after the Fritzl family had been discovered in their dungeon in Austria, the concept for Room came to Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue: mother and son held prisoner in a cork-lined, purpose-built garden shed, told from the point of view of the five-year-old child, Jack. The circumstances in which Ma and Jack find themselves, then, are as horrifying as they come, but this is not a ghastly story. Instead, it is an at times gently humorous tale of the love between mother and child in extraordinary circumstances, of their hope and fortitude and, finally, of their struggle when they emerge into the outside world.

Jack is a curious, energetic boy who knows that everything in Room is real, and that anything else is just TV. He tells of his and Ma’s life together in an endearing voice that nevertheless alerts the reader to the fact that he is profoundly affected by his confinement to Room: he personifies objects, muddles words and sentences and has little concept of any possibility beyond the restriction of his and Ma’s daily routine.

The choice of Jack as narrator is a clever device because his lack of comprehension of the happenings he reports—that Old Nick, his Ma’s captor, creaks the bed 217 times, for example—softens the horror of the situation somewhat. This obliging the reader to inhabit young Jack’s head, and the consequent attention to the minutiae of his and his Ma’s life for the first 90 pages, gave me a distinct sense of claustrophobia. Jack’s reduced perspective, the reams of dialogue between Ma and Jack, and the detailing of the routine by which the two live had me gasping for air: a masterful device of Donoghue’s that had me experiencing, rather than simply reading about, a diluted version of Ma’s emotions.

Yet because of that sense of claustrophobia and my impatience with the tediousness of the narrative, I don’t know that I would have continued reading had I not been reviewing Room here. I’m grateful now that I was obliged to keep going because after the first 90 pages I found this book to be a compelling read. Ma’s delayed reaction to a suggestion made by an interviewer, for example (the link between cause and effect is nicely understated by Donoghue), is riveting. Until this moment, the character of Ma is flawless, almost—a victim of circumstance, blameless—yet the interviewer’s suggestion, and her reaction to it, gives greater complexity and depth to her character.

There are, of course, some issues that arise from the very thing that is the novel’s strength. At one stage, Jack reports, ‘I guess the time gets spread very thin like butter all over the world, the roads and houses and playgrounds and stores, so there’s only a little smear of time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit.’ As lovely and poetic as this concept is, could a five-year-old child really be capable of thinking it and articulating it in such a way? It, to me, sounded like one of those darlings that Arthur Quiller-Couch recommended be murdered. Yet for the most part, the voice of Jack is believable and compelling.

Donoghue has taken the seed of an idea from a horrifying event and created a life-affirming story. While the ethics of such an act are up for debate, there is no doubt that what Donoghue has created is something quite special. She treats her characters with compassion and delivers a convincing, gripping story.

Elizabeth Bryer’s fiction and essays have appeared in Australian literary journals and she blogs at Plume of Words.