Reading and watching: Room by Emma Donoghue

2010 Picador paperback edition

Room is one of those books that ’caused a stir’ when it came out, and everyone was talking about it. I always meant to read it, but never got round to it; and then the movie trailers came out. It was time to read the book before seeing the film!

I whizzed through the book in two or three days – partly because my copy has a pretty big font, but also because it is just gripping. Room is one of the most intense books I have ever read. Even when not much was happening, you could feel the tension.

I was worried it would be really grim, and there are some unpleasant moments and scenes; but overall it is not a depressing book. The first half, when Jack and Ma are still trapped, is very claustrophobic, and you can feel Ma’s despair. But once they get out, the  book is uplifting despite their difficulties, and it feels hopeful. At the end of the story they are able to take a big step towards closure, and you can see how things will be alright. Life will still be hard at times and imperfect, but they can get through it together.

I really admire Emma Donoghue, not only for the intense and vivid quality of her writing and her story, but also for her willingness to immerse herself in such a surreal and sometimes unpleasant world. I can imagine that the writing process was sometimes overwhelming, and certainly emotional – it is definitely those things for the reader. Her sheer commitment to Jack’s narrative voice deserves high praise. It is entirely believable, and it almost hurts when you can see that he doesn’t understand certain things, or why his Ma is sad.

It is one of those books that you don’t necessarily ‘enjoy’ because of the subject matter – rather you appreciate the skill of the writer and the complexity of the work, and are impressed by it. You are engaged by the story and compelled to keep reading. It is a story of deep human interest, from a position of concern and fear but also a degree of sensationalism and a desire for things to work out and end on a positive note – which, luckily, they do. I wouldn’t say to someone, “I really enjoyed this book”, I would say, “This is a really good book.” There is a subtle but distinct difference between the two.

As for the film, I was happy in the knowledge that Donoghue wrote the script, and so I knew it would be true to the book, and it was. Having read the book only a few days before seeing the film, it was all still fresh and real in my mind, and perhaps this is why I cried so much in the cinema. As Hannah of Ponderous Pieces says in her lovely review of the film here, “this is a film about love, motherhood and what it means to be free.” I think that’s why it feels so emotional.

2016 movie poster. (image via

The idea of being constrained and trapped in every aspect of your life is just awful, and the intensity of Jack and Ma’s escape is palpable. As with the book, I held my breath as Jack escapes, and welled up when he saw the sky for the first time. The young actor who plays Jack, Jacob Tremblay, is simply wonderful. He conveys the simplicity of being a child coupled with the complicated nature of his situation and the confusing feelings he experiences. He is also ridiculously cute, and this makes you warm to him as Jack even more.

Brie Larson blew me away as Ma – her performance is a lesson in contained emotion, and she acts with her eyes more than anything else (if that makes sense). She was just as Ma is in the book, and I just felt all her sadness at once. Even though the film is told mostly from Jack’s perspective, like in the book, there are some excellent little moments when you see things more as Ma sees them, often without any words, and the scope of their situation suddenly feels all too real.

If you liked the book, I highly recommend you see the film, as you won’t be disappointed. And I’d recommend the film even if you haven’t read the book, because it is fantastic on its own. I went to see it with my mum, who hasn’t read the book, and she loved it too, and was very impressed by the depiction of Ma and her relationship with Jack.

It’s an emotional ride, but worth it in the end.


Room was originally published by Picador (UK) in 2011. The film adaptation is in cinemas now. You can purchase a copy of Room from Foyles here.



10 thoughts on “Reading and watching: Room by Emma Donoghue”

    1. Yes – you can see that she holds thing back to protect Jack. She has suffered (and still suffers) so much, but one of the most impressive things about Ma is that she keeps it together – most of time – for Jack. That’s why it is just so heartbreaking when that interviewer asks if keeping him with her was the right choice. It’s like she’s lived several lives.


    1. I thought it might be a bit too much, but Donoghue handles the story and events very carefully, and while it’s emotional it is not disturbing or too upsetting. Though it is a very haunting story and stays with you afterwards. I would definitely give it go, though I must say the first third is very intense, so don’t be put off!


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