Inside Out

In the novel Room, four walls and a mother's fierce love define a young boy's world

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Illustration by Andre Da Loba for TIME

Illustration for Room by Emma Donoghue

The child would probably call himself lucky. He has books, toys, a TV, food to eat, a bed to jump on, treats on Sunday. Best of all, he has his mother, 24/7. The thing he doesn't have is freedom. He just doesn't know it.

Emma Donoghue's novel Room (Little, Brown; 321 pages), short-listed for Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize, tells the story of a young woman who seven years earlier was kidnapped and locked in an 11-by-11-ft. (3.4 by 3.4 m) shed, where she is raped almost nightly by her captor. It's an unspeakable crime that is never actually spoken — at least, not by the novel's narrator, 5-year-old Jack, who, for his entire life has shared her prison. His mother, with an ingenuity born of fierce love and a desperate need to protect him, has fashioned Jack's tiny universe into a sort of Platonic ideal. The room is Room. The duvet is Duvet. Jack's friends on the television, Dora and Barney, are as real as any child's imaginary friends. His days are full: "We have thousands of things to do every morning," he says, "like give Plant a cup of water in Sink for no spilling, then put her back on her saucer on Dresser." And if the man who comes in and creaks the bed at night puts him a little on edge, at least he never has to see him: Jack sleeps in the wardrobe.

Room is a feat of both infectious claustrophobia and controlled perspective, and Donoghue pays especially close attention to the way language works in a two-person world. When the possibility arises that Jack might escape to tell their story, he has to learn how to refer to his mother as "she." The third-person pronoun requires a third person — an elementary idea, artfully deployed when Jack does make it into what he calls Outside. Room was inspired in part by the story of Austrian Elisabeth Fritzl, who was imprisoned for 24 years by her father, along with three of the seven children she bore him, and it's these writerly touches that elevate the novel beyond borrowed sensationalism.

Yet there is still something shifty about Donoghue's project. Jack is a lively, charming boy — a testament to his mother's love — and it's tempting to enter his relatively sunny mind-set on the pretext of understanding him. We are all limited in ways we're not aware of; we may do well to count our blessings and cherish the things we have. But our awareness lies with Jack's mother, the person struggling to keep horror out of his reach, whose trauma is etched between every one of Jack's lines. The constant tension between those poles of consciousness is the point of Room, and it makes for an uneasy reading experience. We want to believe that even in captivity, Jack is O.K. But if Jack is O.K., then how is that O.K.? It's a disturbing thought. At least in this case, it's fiction.