By Emma Donoghue
336 pages; Little, Brown
Imagine that you are 5 years old and growing up in an 11-by-11 backyard shack. You have never been outside, you sleep in a makeshift closet, and the only other human being you've ever met is your mother. That's the lot of little Jack, the narrator-hero of Emma Donoghue's Room, a novel so disturbing that we defy you to stop thinking about it, days later. While Jack only vaguely understands how he and Ma got here, his commentary reveals that he was born in this tiny room to Ma and her kidnapper, who still comes by to rape her at night. Nevertheless, in some twisted way, mother and son have a model relationship: They are fiercely attached, have "normal" conversations and arguments, and rituals for meals, bathtime, and games. In fact, it is only after they successfully engineer a thrilling escape that Jack's life becomes unsettled; like all children, he begins to long for what he had, what he thought was a regular life. This blend of allegory and true crime (Donoghue has said she was influenced by several recent news stories) is beautifully served by Jack's wise but innocent voice: When he bangs his head on a faucet, he hears, "Careful"—and wonders, "Why do persons only say that after the hurt?" And while a first-person, child-narrated tale can sometimes feel like a gimmick, the enviable trick here is that Donoghue makes you want to stay with Ma and Jack, whether they're in their own private prison or out in the so-called free world.