There are lots of great mother figures in literature but the one that I keep coming back to is “Ma” from Emma Donoghue’s excruciating, extraordinary novel Room.
Imagine being abducted at age 19 and held in isolation in an 11′ x 11′ room for seven years, while being repeatedly raped by a remote, controlling psychopath. But also imagine having a child two years after being taken to that hidden bunker, and the herculean task of trying to raising that beloved child in as normal an environment as you can for five years, until the realization sets in that in order to keep him safe you must teach him to escape, into a world that not only does he know nothing of, but does not even understand truly exists.
Room is not Ma’s story. The book is told from the point of view of five year old Jack, who’s whole world is elemental: Room is the world, with Chair and Wardrobe and Bed his environment. He is a curious, healthy boy, and is relatively happy because he has no concept that this is not a normal life. The efforts that Ma takes to keep him fit and entertained in that room, while shielding him from the visits from “Old Nick” (the only other person he knows) are heartbreaking, uplifting, and eventually terrifying. Ma is not perfect; through Jack’s childish observations we realize that she is suffering from depression and is in ill health (is that any wonder?). She occasionally snaps at Jack, and can be distant and cold. But that Ma retains any sense of self is astonishing, and her love of Jack is the one thing that keeps her from total oblivion. Her actions throughout the book, even after realizing that true extent of the sacrifice she will have to make in order to protect him, is the epitome of a mother’s fierce and abiding love.