Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reflections on Water - Past and Present

Our Lifeline for the past few weeks
At last - the water is back albeit at reduced pressure which means no showers, but let's be thankful for small mercies as dear old Ma used to say. And the joy of having water to wash, flush, run the dishwasher and washing machine and mop the manky floors knows no bounds!

I hadn't realised how much I'd taken water for granted till spending this Christmas without it - and surviving. It's been well over 20 years ago, when we were living in Burigi in Northwest Tanzania in the heart of the bush between Lake Victoria and Rwanda, with the two oldest and the third on the way, and we had no running water at all.  We lived on rainwater (in the rainy season of course) collected in drums and a specially built tank, and river water did for the dry season and our clothes washing. Nappies were always a darker shade of grey and everything was tinged with a sludge-coloured hue. We only realised this when we were back in Ireland and saw how technicolour everyone else was compared to our au naturel shade of safari gear.

The boys on driftwood at Bahari Beach Dar-es-Salaam - looking out to Zanzibar-1994
Yes, those were the days - and we were loving it! Must have been the vigour of youth that kept us going, and the fact that we were totally thrown back on our own resourcefulness to get by. We were very stoic and nothing fazed us, even the dreaded malaria which landed hubby in our local mission hospital on a few occasions. We had to boil and filter all our drinking water, as it was very muddy from the river and the chalk filters had to be cleaned almost daily. So we certainly didn't take water for granted- and as we had a pit latrine which didn't require flushing we had no worries on that score. Not as awful as it might sound, these pit loos are a terrific solution for any area of water shortage and are a lot more environmentally friendly - as long as they're not leaching into any water supply.

I have some terrific pics of the boys at bathtime outside our house, as all ablutions took place in a makeshift shower hut, with bucket showers. They are sitting in a yellow plastic tub in the sunshine, and as happy as sandboys. I don't think they were overly traumatised by the lack of mod cons, as they knew no different, having been born and reared in the bush. But we often longed for a decent shower and a highlight of our time there was trips to the Dutch doctors in Rubya Hospital in Muleba where we could chill out and shower at length safe in the knowledge they had plenty of water and a hydroelectric plant in the making from the abundant waterfalls in that elevated region.

We had friends in Bukoba town and visiting there meant a surfeit of water, and an illicit swim in Lake Victoria which was out of bounds as far as the tropical docs in Ireland were concerned. This was due to the risks of contracting Bilharzia or Schistosomiasis, which was transmitted via the snails that lived in the water and were vectors of the disease. We occasionally took a chance, hoping that our years in the bush had given us an acquired immunity from all kinds of parasites, as the missionaries and other expats took a laid-back approach to it all.

I guess everything is relative and compared to the refugees we were living amongst and working with, our lives were very comfortable and we had that option they never had - a sanctuary back in Europe if the going got tough and security inadequate. So perspective certainly kept us going as a coping strategy - no matter how rough we thought things were, they were never as rough as the lives and experiences of the Rwandan Tutsi refugees - who are now back in their own country after a lifetime of exile in Uganda and then Tanzania. But that's a story for another day.

We were always used to boiling water abroad, as the only place we ever drank tap water was in Zanzibar, where the aquifers are deep enough to be clean. In Bangladesh water is potentially lethal as the tubewell water is naturally tainted with arsenic, This was not known in our day there 30 years ago, but has since come to light. It's particularly ironic in a country that has such a love-hate relationship with water that this should happen - after all, the Cholera hospital in Dhaka invented the Oral Rehydration solution that we're so familiar with in the West now.

We are looking down the barrel of water metering in Ireland with inevitable charges - hubby is amazed that we have free water here when every other European country seems to be charging for it - but our attitude seems to be why should we have to pay when we have an over-abundance of rain in this damp climate. I guess it's all down to the cost of treatment, which is a luxury we do take for granted, especially when the boil notices appear and ghastly things like Cryptosporidium turn up in Galway and are traced back to the water source. I hope that our mega-leaking ancient pipes here will be given priority for repairs as there seems to be as many litres leaking away per hour as we owe the IMF in Euro in the coming few years.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Happy Christmas - from the Frozen Wastes of a Waterless West Waterford

Happy Christmas - Cake with fondant and royal icing
We are after the coldest Christmas Day in my memory - it was -11Centigrade in Dungarvan on Christmas morning according to the weather widget thingy on my laptop - and I'm not going to argue with technology. It is now +6Centigrade, so that's an improvement and we were due a thaw over the coming days. Hopefully it will suffice to thaw the frozen water pipes that have returned us to bush living (without the tropical heat) over the past week or more. It's been quite an experience having no water over Christmas and our house has been full - there were eight of us for Christmas dinner and it was a lovely day - I was made sit down after dinner while the kitchen was blitzed by the gang and everything left pristine.
After the first slice!

Little and Large - cake for son on left - loaf-tin baked
 We've been drawing water from the Spout, a spring near the town, by Lismore Castle, and it has been seeing queues of people for the past week, as there are so many households and farms without water. So we are relying on the kindness of friends for washing clothes, and offers of showers and people are really helping each other out at this time. We've had New Year's Eve parties for the past few years which have been great fun, and a nice way to meet up with everyone over Christmas - but this year's looks in doubt unless a miracle happens and water returns well before then.

  Years with water shortages in Africa were the norm for us, but there you are prepped for it and it seemed less hassle. We had a pit latrine for starters - that's the biggest drawback for flush loos - the water supply should be reliable. (That old adage from Meet the Parents comes to mind - "If it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down"!)
Lismore Canal on Christmas Eve

River Blackwater at the "Kitchen Hole" - N72 Cappoquin-Lismore road - on Christmas Eve

Jan and me with his internet radio
 I iced our Christmas cakes disgracefully late this year - I put the marzipan on two days ago and the white icing last night - and we've already had a slice. The "proper" way to do Christmas cakes according to the purists is to bake them in October, do the marzipan in late November, wait a week or two and then put on the fondant or royal icing at least a week before serving. Oh dear, I breached each and every one of those guidelines - and there's me preaching with my recipes on Facebook and the blog! So like nurses are the worst at looking after their own health, I guess bakers are somewhat similar - not practising what they preach! In any event, the cake is delicious and the slightly softer-than-usual marzipan and half-set royal icing is actually very tasty. So sometimes breaking the rules isn't so bad after all!
My Outnumbered DVDs - with teen daughter

Sofia and her sit'n'ride rocker - and her godmother
 We'd a lovely day as it was Sofia's first Christmas and she got lots of presents, and Santa came back to the house after an absence of some years - luckily he hadn't forgotten the way. I got some lovely pressies - jewellery from hubby Jan, a gold necklace and matching earrings - the whole series of subversive comedy Outnumbered from the boys, and another DVD from teen daughter - Evelyn with Pierce Brosnan, while clever Sofia gave her granny a Swedish DVD - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - which I read last year for book club! Santa brought Philip Roth's Nemesis - much coveted - and friends gave me more books - chicklit writer Jennifer Weiner's Best Friends Forever from my own very literary BFF in New Jersey, and next month's book club choice (real world, not bloggers!) Winter Bones by Daniel Woodrell. from another friend.
Sofia and her dad

Design son with book
 A family DVD was watched last night - Les Miserables' 25th Anniversary show from London this year - brilliant performance which was live-streamed to cinemas globally and which Shayne and Jany went to see in Dungarvan's SGC cinema at the time. So I will be busy for the coming weeks. Hubby's pressie from me was a Roberts Internet and DAB radio which will give a lot of pleasure - BBC World Service will be crackle-free and round the clock instead of erratic and fadey and non-existent in Ireland - not far enough away to need the World Service on longwave but not near enough to have it on FM the thinking! I believe there are about 10,000 stations globally available - that's gonna need time to navigate!

Sofia got a rocker/sit and ride toy from us, and lots of other toys including her own baby zimmer frame - a push activity toy. Designer son got graphic and typography books, and sporty son got sporty gear and a heart-rate monitor, teen daughter a lavender new mobile phone, while Jany got a sewing machine and books, and Shayne got books and games. All this after Mass and before the turkey dinner, and we went to visit Ma's grave before dinner as well, in the brilliant winter sunshine, as we're thinking of our first Christmas without her.

Here are some photos of the winter wonderland scenery around this Christmas with snow and ice - and frozen rivers, and some of our Christmas day pressie pics. Have a great holiday season and Happy rest of Christmas and New Year!
Jany with Singer sewing machine

Monday, December 20, 2010

Socks, Scarves and Snowflakes - coping with the Big Freeze at Christmas

Modelling the Curly-Wurly Ruffle Scarf
I've been trying to keep my mind off the state of the nation (not an easy task) by immersing myself in knitting and crochet mini-projects. It may be a sign of the times that I can't get down to a single big project like a jumper or jacket, as there's just too much going on with work, home and Christmas less than a week away to concentrate on something demanding a lot of time and attention. That's what the grim gloom of January and February is for! Jany (our d-i-l-to-be) has totally taken to crochet since I showed her how to do it a few months back, and has made some wonderful hats and scarves since then, some of which I posted about recently. She has got me hooked (sorry, couldn't resist that!) on it as well, and as it is much quicker than knitting there's a certain attraction when you want something in a hurry.

This weekend I made a lovely curly-wurly ruffle scarf, in chunky random-dyed wool from the local shop - Angela's Design Workshop - which has reawakened interest in a lot of dormant knitters and crocheters. This coral reef style pattern was so easy and fast to work I couldn't believe it - a scarf in a couple of hours. I can see myself making presents of these for friends - so watch out!
Curly-Wurly Ruffle Scarf
I also got some terrific wool in Lidl which awaits my attention but is such good value you couldn't leave it - especially as Lidl only very occasionally has wool for sale, and when it's there you grab it. There were whole kits - wool, pattern and a circular needle for a jumper for about €5 - ridiculous and yet unmissable. The small independent shops can't compete with that so I don't abandon our local shop which has terrific bargain basement wool - balls of 100g DK for €3, perfectly serviceable and the makings of a scarf or a pair of socks. How bad is that?

Curly-Wurly Ruffle Scarf detail

Cable and Basketweave Socks
Heel detail of  Cable and Basketweave socks

A couple of weeks ago I finished a pair of socks - pattern from Ravelry I think - Cable and Basketweave design. They are very chunky and warm, only suitable with my trainers which is fine, but too thick for my ankle boots. I love them, and they were trimmed with remnants from my stash, so very good for using up scraps. I had a disaster with another pair - my lovely peachy socks I posted about a while back - when second son washed his jeans in the same load. They emerged sludge grey and the little heel hole I'd planned on darning had expanded to beyond repair level - even if they'd retained their colour. So into the bin, before their time. The trials and tribulations of hand knit socks - they don't always wear as well as the shop socks but then that's not why I make them!

Seafoam Scarf
Snowflake for the tree!
I got some random-dyed wool blend a few weeks ago and made this lovely loopy seafoam scarf, and that was another pattern from one of the many online sites I wander around. You can see the original pattern and I made it in a different blend of colours. It was easy to make and ran up very quickly.

This weekend I made a lovely crochet snowflake - it was from a Lion Brand Yarn free download pattern - and Jany made two or three more - they are all delightful and adorn our tree, so that's something I'll do again. There are so many talented designers out there - all I do is knit and crochet, not design anything. 

So I hope you get some inspiration from this post - I hadn't knitted or crocheted anything for  years and only took it up a few years ago, and now I find it a great hobby with a nice end product - and I love that I've shown some others how to knit (Tandy who came in March and is now knitting in London!) and Jany. She has passed me out by leaps and bounds and last night we laughed when she showed me how to do a 3D flower in crochet, while she was a beginner only a few short months ago. There are hundreds of online tutorials for knitting and crochet projects, so check them out on YouTube - just search for them by name and you'll be busy for some time. Most of them are also available as printed patterns, if you prefer.
Toll Plaza on M8 Cork-Dublin motorway at Watergrasshill, Co. Cork

As we are in the middle of the coldest December in my memory with snow and sub-zero temperatures I wish you all a very Happy Christmas. Hope you enjoyed my last post with all our news from the year, and I am loving reading all the cards and letter coming by snail mail each day through our letter box. You can't beat the old ways - even though I only hand-write at Christmas since the advent of email and blogging!

Here's a photo of the road from Cork today after bringing Shayne, Jany and little Sofia home after a weekend with us in Lismore. They'll all be here for Christmas which will be terrific.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Happy Christmas 2010 - thoughts on Round Robins and Recessions

Happy Christmas 2010!
Dear friends,

Family gathering for Jan's birthday celebrations (minus William)
It's that time of year again – the Round Robin's bob-bobbing along to a mailbox near you as yet again the annual missive that is our Christmas Newsletter wings its way around the globe. I just realised that this is the 21st Anniversary of our Newsletter – the first one was written on a portable typewriter in Iringa in 1989 and photocopied – badly – and sent off to far-flung corners of the globe from the Southern Highlands of Tanzania!

We are coasting downhill to the Christmas and the New Year with more trepidation than we've collectively felt in my lifetime. There's a strong sense of déjà vu – last year was bad but this year Ireland has a post-apocalyptic feeling now after our €85billion bailout by the IMF and the EU – an intervention much denied by our benighted government in the run-up to their arrival. These sheriffs have been and gone but will keep a close eye on us to make sure we're doing as we're told to keep the banks afloat and raise the taxes to do so, all the while paying the lenders enough interest would run the health service every year. The ignominy of having our affairs handed over to outside forces is a bitter pill to swallow as we have certainly lost our financial sovereignty – not quite back to the old colonial days but economically somewhat similar.

The dreaded budget was unveiled on Tuesday – there's a deficit of €6 billion to fund this year, part of the €14 billion we have to find by 2014. The years of wheeling and dealing have finally caught up with a government who had no grasp on economics as they led us into a bubble of property development borrowing from toxic banks that was totally unsustainable. We're all crashing to earth after builder developers abandon the ghost estates that litter the rural hinterland, while the banksters are all exposed as bluffers who profited from the light touch regulation and deference of the government. What it means to me is a drop in take-home pay of around €2K p.a. and that's just speculative – we won't know till mid-January as there're so many new and combined levies we have a job calculating it all till our first paycheques.

Jan and me at his birthday party May 2010
Back to the news from the Rotte-Murray family – and what a year it's been. We've seen the best of times and the worst of times, to borrow a line from Charles Dickens. We were blessed with the birth of our first grandchild, a beautiful little girl, Sofia, born to Shayne and Jany in Cork on February 11th. She is a joy and delight for all of us, as she grows to a lively active baby, well on the way to being a toddler who'll keep everyone on their toes this Christmas. Then three weeks later, on March 5th, we were plunged into sadness with the death of my beloved mother at the great age of 94. She had been declining over recent years, and she had a peaceful passing for which we are all grateful – she didn't suffer and I was blessed to be able to spend so much time with her in her last weeks in St. Joseph's Hospital in Dungarvan. It has been an awful loss as we were so close, but these last years have been a long goodbye, with her decline into dementia. She was buried in Lismore with her beloved parents, and Jan gave a beautiful eulogy at her funeral Mass. I have great memories of her, and I can look out our window to the graveyard at the back of our garden where she's at rest, and there's a comfort in that for me. We are all glad that the whole family were together with her a few days before she died, and we took treasured photos of her with Sofia and all of us.

Sofia's Christening Day, 4th September, with her parents
Shayne and Jany have settled into life in Cork, and they are expecting a second baby next March! Shayne had been working with Concern in direct fundraising but was let go in February. Jany then got a job in Marriott International in April, and Shayne is looking after Sofia and doing a business course – Jan or me babysit on the days he's at college. They are in a nice house in Blackrock, close to shops and bus routes. They went to Holland in August to bring Sofia to see Jany's family and friends. It is lovely having them in Ireland after all the years Shayne was in Spain, and we would miss them so much if they weren't here –so the timing was perfect when they came back – another year and they might have been put off by the dire economic situation. We had a lovely ceremony for Sofia's Christening in Lismore in September – she looked sweet in our family heirloom Christening robe – the 4th or 5th generation – and had a BBQ in the garden here afterwards, as we had a good summer this year.

Me and Sofia - October
Martin and us at his MA graduation DIT - Oct. 2010
 Martin has just finished his Master's Degree in Professional Design Practice in DIT (Dublin Institute of Technology in Bolton Street) and we had a lovely day at his recent graduation in St. Patrick's Cathedral. He is still living in Dublin, and is trying to find a job, without much luck so far though he has an interview this week. He enjoyed his MA and it is a damning indictment of the system to see so many well-educated graduates on the dole and unable to get work in their professional field- he has done unpaid interning to get experience for his CV, so I hope it pays off. There's so much emigration now that the government is factoring it into the projections for the social welfare costs for the next four years and they are also claiming the figures on the live register are dropping (the Social Welfare register) – that's all because of the emigration. I don't want the boys to have to go abroad – when we went it was from choice, not necessity. That's a whole different ball-game.

William and us at his BA graduation UL August 2010
William finished his BA in Physical Education and Geography in the University of Limerick and we celebrated with his graduation in August. He moved to Cork when he got a job as a waiter in the Airport Hotel, and as he was getting very few hours there he got another job this week in Amazon in Cork. He has applied for teaching in the UK as there seems very little in teaching in Ireland – the public service embargo is affecting new grads worse than experienced teachers as they are all competing for the few substitute jobs or maternity cover or the private schools unaffected by the ban on recruitment in the public sector. All very demoralising for the lads and their parents aren't too happy either – but we are very proud of all of them for getting to adulthood with a positive outlook on life and not giving up on Ireland – just yet anyway.

Maeve has just had her 15th birthday with a sleepover weekend here at home with five or six of her friends – we lifted the term-time ban on sleepovers for the occasion and she made the best of it. With her Junior Cert looming in June, she has had to knuckle down to the books – and having to do supervised study doesn't really appeal but it concentrates the study to the afternoon and she doesn't have that much to do after dinner. As we didn't go abroad for holidays this year – sign of the times – she spent the summer camping in the garden in a big tent we got in Argos, and they had good fun with that. I took four of the girls to Dublin for a weekend in July – we stayed in the Skylon Hotel and they shopped till I dropped. They enjoyed it and I was able to drop them to Blanchardstown Centre and spend time with Martin and also visit old friends Tom and Darina.

Jan had a very significant birthday this year – he turned sixty in May! All his family came over from Holland for a week and we marked the big occasion with a party in Ballyrafter House Hotel with the family and our friends. I baked a huge cake and we had a lovely night, and he didn't look a day over fifty (!) as we danced the night away to a local combo. The family all stayed in Youghal in holiday homes, and did a lot of sightseeing as well as spending time with us in Lismore during the week – we had a BBQ at home and then hired a bus for a day trip around the Ring of Kerry, which was a highlight for all of us. It was over thirty years since I had been there in my hitch-hiking student days. It's still a beautiful scenic route – a 90 mile round trip from Killarney and some hair-raising bends – no wonder the tour buses can only go one-way! Jan is still active in the local Town Council for Labour and on the national town councillors' committee, as well as Concern's council, and the national festival association.

Shayne, Sofia and Jany
This year's Immrama festival of Travel Writing was another great success, with big names like Ranulph Fiennes speaking about his Boy's Own adventures to various frozen wastes of the world, his self-amputation of his fingers after a nasty dose of frostbite, and other tales of derring-do. Tim Severin was also there, telling of his high seas adventures in the wake of Sinbad and St. Brendan and other great voyagers, and veteran writer Jan Morris rounded off a terrific weekend of armchair travel in wonderful settings around Lismore. It proved a great respite from the recession, and hopefully 2011 will be as big an event – many old faces return for the fringe events, and its international reputation keeps growing. Jan is kept busy as the festival manager, and plans are already underway for next year. We took part in the Seán Kelly Charity Tour of Waterford in August, with Jan doing 90km while Shayne and me did 50km, and Shayne did 90km in the Cork Rebel Tour in September. I got a lot of fun from my birthday present of a lipstick-red hybrid tour/trek cross bike.

I'm still working away in Old Parish area as the public health nurse, although I moved office to Dungarvan in May. With the snow we've had in Ireland in recent weeks – Snowvember as some called it – there have been parts of my area impassable by car, and the coastguard jeep had to do shopping for some isolated folk in the uplands. I don't think Ireland does snow and bad weather too well, as is the norm in so many countries, but we literally grind to a halt when there's more than a few days of snow and ice. We had the Big Freeze in 2009/10 and it looks like it may be round 2 already, with plenty more forecast. I continue to enjoy my job despite the constraints of cutbacks, as the recruitment ban means that posts aren't always automatically filled, and now there're plans to reduce numbers by 6000 in the coming years, half of which may be frontline nursing staff. With beds closing, hospitals overcrowded, and morale very low, it's hard to know where it will all end. There's even talk of returning the beleaguered HSE to the old Health Boards system to improve accountability.

That's about it for our news this year – we weren't away for any holiday, rather the family came to us in May and in late March an old friend Tandy came for a visit – we hadn't met since we lived in Iringa where our kids grew up together, so we'd a lot of catching up to do. We spent some of the time sightseeing around lovely West Waterford and had some knitting lessons – which she has kept up since returning to London. Jany has discovered a previously unknown talent for crochet, and I knitted some funky socks for myself as well as some baby clothes for Sofia. I'm still reading avidly, and in the book club, as well as an online Bloggers' book club, where there's a lot of overlap with the real world club. I enjoy blogging as an outlet for writing – mostly recipes, book reviews, knitting, family events, and current affairs ranting. Check it out – I was chuffed to be shortlisted for two categories in the Irish Blog Awards, even though I didn't win it was a nice accolade.

We're looking forward to having all the family together for Christmas in Lismore, even though it'll be sad as the first one without Ma, and she'll be in our thoughts. May you all have a wonderful Christmas, and drop in if you're around Lismore – we've an open door here and love to catch up on old friends in real time as well as all those we keep in contact with through Skype, Facebook and email, which have all changed the way the world communicates. We wish you all much happiness in 2011 and look forward to hearing from you in the coming weeks and over the festive season.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all,

Love from

Jan and Catherine, Shayne, Jany and Sofia, Maeve, William and Martin, and Ben the dog.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Bloggers' Book Club - Room by Emma Donoghoe

We had this Man-Booker shortlisted novel for our real-world book club here in Lismore last month so it was serendipitous that it was listed for the Bloggers' Book Club for November. There's been a few coincidences recently - Andrea Levy's Small Island was another one we did in both worlds and it went down a treat in each!

Room has just won the Irish Novel of the Year at the Irish Times Book Awards and it is a well deserved accolade for Emma Donoghue, whatever you may make of the novel's subject matter which has sat uncomfortably with many readers. It's a pretty ambiguous book and many of our book club members seemed ambivalent; torn between admiration and exasperation,  the lack of the definite article was a particular gripe with one of our members who found it incongruous in a child with an otherwise extremely advanced vocabulary.

Many felt uncomfortable about the voyeuristic sense that it exploited for literary and commercial gain the misery of those who  had experienced such incarceration, particularly the Fritzl case in Austria which was the inspiration for Donoghue.

Coincidentally, last Sunday morning Emma Donoghue and her father Denis Donoghue, a renowned literary critic were on RTÉ Radio One's Miriam Meets. It was a fascinating programme and it showed the relationship between father and daughter to be mutually loving and relaxed. She came across as a gentle articulate woman with a lovely accent - Hiberno-Canadian overtones probably - and he as a slightly self-deprecating academic and family man. I have to admit I'd never heard of him but had read her before - Stir-Fry was the first of her books I read back in the '70s and it left an impression.

But this is a review of Room. The subject was harrowing - based on the horrendous true story of abduction and imprisonment of young women by monsters - often their own fathers as in the Joseph Fritzl case - and in this book, a stranger who abducted Ma (I don't think she's named in the book - correct me if I'm wrong) as a young student and held her hostage in a soundproofed garden shed for 7 or 8 years. Long enough for her to be impregnated twice - first with a baby who dies, and is buried in the garden by the abductor/father (known only as Old Nick, a nicely Satanic reference), and then with Jack who survives and becomes the focus of Ma's life. The story opens when he's almost six and he is the narrator throughout. It quickly becomes evident that he is an extremely precocious child with a vocabulary way beyond his tender years, and an intelligence of acquired knowledge - like reading and big words - while having a very peculiar trait. He personalises objects in his environment and in doing so drops the indefinite article. The Wardrobe is simply Wardrobe, and every inanimate object in his frame of reference comes alive. It is a grating construct that grew on me - I quickly got over the initial irritation - and it made perfect sense to me when he had such a strange world view.

For Jack, his world was Room - he knew no other space - and Ma conspired in this by telling him the world they saw on TV was not real. So he grows up with the norms of childhood in the early 21st Century - TV. Dora the Explorer is his favourite children's programme, slightly unusual as it is generally favoured by girls, but Jack has no gender stereotypes to conform with. Their lives in Room are so confined yet Jack has no sense of this, knowing nothing else. That he has got to five with such intelligent development is a testimony to Ma's care and the most disturbing images are of his hiding in Wardrobe during the visits of their abductor and Ma's passivity in succumbing to his advances, all the while humouring him to protect Jack. She still breastfeeds Jack which makes sense - they need to be close to each other and it provides him with nutrients he might not get from his diet given that he never saw daylight except through the skylight in Room.

I found myself trying to imagine how the world would be if all you knew was the one space and had no language to describe the rest of the world. It reminded me of writer/philosopher Alain de Botton's references to Xavier de Maistre's Voyage around my Room in his book The Art of Travel. de Maistre wrote about travelling around his bedroom, as if on a global expedition - but he knew what else was out there. Jack has no idea what he's missing, and only midway through the book when Ma plots the escape plan does she disclose the truth to him. He cannot comprehend that there is a world with more people out there, and while the actual escape stretches the imagination a bit I think Donoghue deserves a bit of artistic licence as there was no other way to do it.

The book is clearly divided into a before and after - life in Room and beyond. The world falling apart for Jack is at times harrowing and if not such a difficult scenario would be often hilarious. The poor boy has a hard time adjusting to relationships with the family of Ma who has a nervous breakdown soon after their rescue. There's little reference to the abductor afterwards, other than to confirm he'd be getting life. I found the after part of the book quite disjointed and it probably reflected their new life - she had to pick up the pieces after a long absence and her parents had split up, so she had a new Steppa to contend with while her natural father came from Australia to visit her and had a difficulty with Jack being the result of rape. It had an open ending - so one hopes there's a good future for both of them - if there's a sequel potential I'd be curious to know what went on before - maybe there'd be a prequel as well.

I'm going to add some videoclips I saw on other Blogger's Book Club member's reviews, as they give a good sense of the macabre world we move into with Room.

All in all, I loved the voice of Jack - his innocence and absolute acceptance of the world he knows is credible, and while the lack of the indefinite article is a bit irritating at first it blends in with the theme. I could visualise Room so well that I could imagine them exercising, feeding, watching TV and hiding in Wardrobe. The horrors of the incarceration are alluded to and the reader is drip-fed tidbits, like the injured wrist which Ma sustained from her abductor, her rotten tooth which Jack holds like a talisman, a soother. There are terrible things in this book that creep up on the reader they are told so matter-of-factly by Jack referring to incidents or relaying what Ma's told him happened.

There's a subtext on breastfeeding and societal attitudes to extended feeding which are nicely addressed here - Jack helps himself to "some" as he calls the milk whenever he wants it - a situation prevailing in many parts of the world today - but it freaks out people on the outside when they hear of it, as if it's one of the bigger deals. The topic is opened up without being laboured pedantically but it shows the prejudice that society can have towards something so innocent, as if it's something bad she's doing, instead of a way to keep sane as well as keep Jack healthy in his incarceration.

While it is a disturbing difficult book to read, that's probably the genius of the writer. As a mother of a young boy like Jack, she listened and listed his speech patterns to get the gist of a child's voice. The reader is drawn into their world that it becomes plausible and real. I would say this book will be read by book clubs globally and there will be a universality in the response to it, a difficult subject, controversial regarding allegations of exploitation by the writer of such situations - some of our members and indeed some journalists felt it exploited the awful abductions like that of Jaycee Dugard that came to light in 2009, the Fritzl one in 2008 and the Kampusch one in 2006, both in Austria. I'm sure Austrian society has done a lot of soul-searching lately but I don't think any country can take the moral high ground. We're not too hot ourselves in our treatment of the innocent, with all the clerical sex abuse of children, the dreadful incest cases exposed in the media - some high-profile like the McColgan and Kilkenny and Roscommon cases, others less so where there's a litany of misery in the cold detached language of a newspaper court report.

The subject matter might be bleak, and any review will reflect that, but I think Donoghue offers insight into what it might be like to be a victim of such a terrible crime and we'll all hug our children a little bit tighter after reading a book like Room - and be thankful for our ordinary mundane lives.

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