It took me a while to figure out why I have a problem with this book: it's too cute. It seems paradoxical to say this about a novel which deals with such horrific subject matter. In a way, Room is a sort of Uncle Tom's Cabin for our times. Rape, forcible confinement and child abuse have the same power to move us to disgust and outrage as slavery did for progressive minds in the 19th century. It's therefore understandably difficult while reading to separate our moral feelings from our critical responses.
But there's a basic weakness at the heart of this novel. As many reviewers have stated, this is a story of survival and the mutual love of a mother and her son. No problem with that. But it's not survival in itself but rather the decisions and choices made to achieve that survival that supply the substance of a fully realized novel. When the central character is a five-year-old the possible development of that character through purposive action is severely limited. It's the same problem Faulkner faced with Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. Like Faulkner, Donoghue tackles the problem head-on by exploiting the character's limitations to the maximum. Her invention of a child-like language to express a child's perceptions is without question original, ingenious and brilliantly carried out.
However this very considerable "tour de force", extended over 300 pages, can't entirely disguise the thinness of the storyline. This can be simply summarized: Ma and Jack are confined, they escape, they recover. Though we rightly have feelings of sympathy and compassion for them in their predicament, they don't develop as characters and therefore don't command our deepest response. And who are they? They have no history and only the barest social context. As in Gothic fiction the villain, Old Nick (the Devil), is a plot device rather than a character. There is a curious insubstantiality about the whole thing.
As a consequence, the many circumstantial details of Jack's daily life, which fill out the narrative, are interesting rather than compelling. Though as readers we are required to do some work in order to "interpret" Jack's understanding of reality, his experience of the world is too immature (inevitably) to prevent this exercise from resembling a clever game. Hence the "cutesy" quality of, for example, this episode in the Cumberland Clinic: "She says the persons are here at the Cumberland because they're a bit sick in the head, but not very. They can't sleep maybe from worrying, or they can't eat, or they wash their hands too much, I didn't know washing could be too much. Some of them have hit their heads and don't know themselves anymore, and some are sad all the time or scratch their arms with knives even, I don't know why. The doctors and nurses and Pilar and the invisible cleaners aren't sick, they're here to help." The disjunction between adult and child perceptions is amusing but teeters between comedy and sentimentality.
There's a famous precedent, of which I'm sure Emma Donoghue is aware, for her inventive use of a child's point of view. James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man begins like this: "Once upon a time, and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo...." But the "nicens little boy" (Stephen Dedalus) soon grows up to be an active, intelligent adult whose story fully engages our adult attention.