APRIL READING -Dancing With The Devil; Navigation; From A Clear Blue Sky; The Room

THE ROOM by Emma Donoghue

Imagine living in a space 11 feet by 11 feet, with only a very high up sky light for natural light, and a door that you cannot get out of. Imagine being kidnapped off the street at 19 years old and living in this for 7 years with no other company apart from your abusive captor, a television, and eventually a baby who grows into a lively and intelligent little boy. Imagine, creating a world, the world that you remember and crave for that little boy, Jack, within that 11ft by 11 ft space. Because he has never known any other type of existence, unlike his mother, he never sees Room as a prison. Until one day, the inevitable happens. When Jack is 5, he slowly begins to realize that Outside is not just what he sees day in day out on the television. Outside actually does exist.

‘Room’ is a totally gripping and compelling tale of survival, both physical and mental. Survival of the teenage girl in her jail; giving birth and bringing up a child; teaching that child to read and write; explaining Outside through the medium of TV; and then survival once Outside becomes the new reality for mother and child. It is fairly clear that the story was inspired by the real life imprisonment of Elizabeth Fritzl in Austria who gave birth to a number of children to her captor.

The story is narrated entirely through the eyes of 5 year old Jack. And what a story it is. I read the first half in one sitting, finally making myself turn the light out at 3am, and then I had a couple of nights of very disturbing dreams. Jack’s friends are Door, Bed, Wall, Rug, Light and other items in Room. Outside is like how I imagine us outsiders would see outer space – something out there that we really have no concept of or likelihood of ever seeing that we know about through television and other media.

The way Jack describes his life in Room takes a bit of getting used to. But it forms the backbone to the story once he and his mother are back in the real world. He is completely naïve and ignorant about virtually everything we take for granted in our daily lives, such as how to go into a shop, choose an item then exchange money for that item; or wear a pair of shoes for the first time; or learn how to climb stairs.

When they finally do make it Outside, unsurprisingly, Jack wants to go back to Room. His poor mother, who naturally does not want to go back to Room, but after seven years being locked away and not finding the harsh reality of Outside easy, doesn’t know what she wants.

I think this story should be compulsory reading. It is extremely relevant to the world we live in. It provides absolutely no comfort to parents of teenage girls, and also shows, like all tragedies how suddenly and irrecoverably lives can change. Despite that it is a story of hope and an attitude of never give up, a mother’s powerful love for her child that compels her to get up every day and try to make a life, and most importantly the pure joy and unending curiosity that children find in virtually everything around them.

FROM A CLEAR BLUE SKY by Timothy Knatchbull

The amazing thing about belonging to a bookclub is that you are exposed to books you would never normally choose to read. I was just 17 when the IRA blew up a boat off the west coast of Ireland, just south of the line separating north from south. Way down at the bottom of the world in New Zealand, I distinctly remember the event, and the international horror and outrage at this act. I gathered the main target was a very important person but no real idea of who he was or what he had done. And that is basically all I remember of the incident.

All the focus, naturally was on Lord Louis, grandson of Queen Victoria, cousin of the Queen, godfather of Prince Charles. As well as being royal, he had a very distinguished naval war career, Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia, took Burma off the Japanese and ended up being Admiral of the Fleet. For his service, he was appointed the last Viceroy of India, and was instrumental in the handing over of India back to the Indian government in 1947.

On that boat was a family group out for a day fishing and general mucking about. The principle target, Lord Louis Mountbatten was killed, as were his 13 year old grandson Nicholas, Nicholas's paternal grandmother Lady Brabourne, and a local lad, 14 year old Paul Maxwell. Also on the boat were Lord Louis' daughter Patricia and husband John, and their other 13 year old identical twin son Timothy. These three, due to the quick thinking and actions of the locals, miraculously survived the bombing, and although severely injured did, in their own way, recover.

So a book written by the surviving twin finds itself on the bookclub table and suddenly I feel compelled to read it - the story behind the headlines.

Timothy and his parents were too ill to go to the funerals of their parents/grandparents/son/brother. So there was no real sense of closure for him, and in the days before full scale trauma counselling such as is available today, in many ways he was simply left to get over it and get on with his life. Some 20 years later he decides to confront the past, the result of which is this sensitively written, very forgiving, gracious, and mostly cathartic book. Timothy's story has three parts to it - the family and its history that Timothy belongs to, the events leading up to the bombing and its immediate aftermath; the path of Timothy's life and how he does his own investigation into the bombing, the IRA with personal visits to Ireland; and most significantly the devastating effect of the death of his identical other on his own life. I would say one of the key drivers in his survival and which comes through very strongly in the book, is how close knit and functional this particular family is.

As well as all the family stuff, there is a considerable amount of writing about the conflict in Ireland and the Troubles which reached their peak in the late 1970s. Many people have no sympathy at all for the IRA and its ilk. We would all forgive Timothy if he expressed hate and bitterness for those responsible, but he doesn't. He may not agree with their methods, but he understands their cause. He discovers that his grandfather had been a target for quite some time, and seems to accept that it was really only a matter of time before something happened.

A most interesting and emotional read about a troubled time in recent history and how there really are no winners in any of these conflicts.

NAVIGATION by Joy Cowley

'Greedy Cat', 'Mrs Wishy-Washy', 'The Silent One': how many people in New Zealand and around the world too, have grown up with the wonderful stories of Joy Cowley? In fact, after reading this memoir, you would almost suspect that she is more famous outside of New Zealand than inside. What a remarkable woman, with really quite a remarkable life, and yet also such a very ordinary life.

Rather than be confined by the structure of an autobiography, Joy Cowley has chosen to write a memoir: a collection of anecdotes encompassing the special events, people: 'the gifts of life that make a person'.

One of the most remarkable things about Joy Cowley is that as a child she struggled with learning to read and just did not get it. It was not until she was nine that one day, while looking through a pile of picture books at school, she did get it, and from that moment on she was hooked. Anyone who is s passionate reader well and truly will understand that moment when a book hooks.

Her love of reading, the sense of magic and escape that comes from a great story and then wanting to impart that magic to everyone else are the main drivers in her career as a writer of children's books and later young adult/adult books. I am sure her struggles with reading as a child enabled her to empathise with a similarly struggling child and so know exactly hot to go about writing to that child. What I enjoyed reading about the most was where the ideas for her stories have come from. 'Greedy Cat', the cat, for example was real, but didn't come to fruition until some time later. At all times she praises the talents of her illustrators who so beautifully bring her characters to life and into the imaginations of the child reader. And let's not forget the adult reading the book to the child.

Her life is not simply about books and reading. She shares her family life, her relationships, her children, her travels: not all of it plain sailing and she would appear to have had more than her fair share of pain and suffering. Yet by the time I had finished reading all I felt was her joy in life, her gratitude for what she has accomplished and the people who have helped her and be so enriched.

Joy Cowley is a true national treasure. In the mid-1980s I found I was one of the flatmates in the house she owned in Khandallah in Wellington. The house had not long been empty, it was old, run down, quite empty as we were the first tenants, but it did have a lovely comfortable feel about, it set in a rambling sort of garden and lots of sun. Quite regularly, the mail for our flat would consist of business envelopes addressed to Joy Cowley that, in hindsight, probably contained royalty cheques (before the days of internet banking), which we would dutifully re-address to her new home in the Marlborough Sounds. It did feel rather strange reading about this part of Joy's life, and somehow contributing to it in a very teeny tiny way!

DANCING WITH THE DEVIL by Christopher Wilson

The irresistible combination of royalty, money, sex, and scandal- continually fascinating and intriguing. But why? Well, we don't really know the answer to that, but we still soak up the bizarre and self-destructive behaviours of the rich and famous. And in the 1930s there were none more rich and famous and self- destructive or self-absorbed than the Prince of Wales, David, and his complete infatuation with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. So infatuated was he that when he became King on the death of his father, he threw it away for this woman. And was she even a woman? Plenty of rumours and speculation over that question! As for the ex-King, it would seem his sexual proclivities tended towards the unusual too. A marriage made in heaven you might think. Until the appearance on the scene of the grandson of Franklyn Hutton, founder of the Woolworths empire. Jimmy Donahue, by all accounts was a truly beautiful young man, homosexual, promiscuous, hedonistic and the epitomy of the poor little rich boy, as was his cousin Barbara Hutton, subject of a famous biography called Poor Little Rich Girl. This family is a shining example of how money cannot buy happiness.

In the early 1950s Jimmy and Wallis began a passionate and public affair that lasted four years, making a complete fool of the Duke of Windsor in the process, and yet there was nothing he could do about it other than hope it would run its course. Which eventually it did. The interesting thing is that, despite their ostracism from respectable English society, the Windsors were hot property in the US. Society hostesses competed with each other for the company of the couple in their various social settings. None was more competitive than Jimmy's mother Jessie, daughter of Franklyn Hutton and so extremely rich with money, literally, to throw away. For some years Jessie effectively financed the extravagant and greedy lifestyle of the Windsors, thus giving Jimmy unrestricted access to the couple. Yet none of this money came to Jimmy himself; he was reliant solely on his mother for his own luxurious lifestyle. Sadly, because of this control his mother had over him, Jimmy never actually accomplished anything, even though he was desperate enough and probably good enough to have become a theatre producer.

The meeting of these three unhappy and unfulfilled individuals, as you can imagine was never destined to end happily. Reading this book I was struck by how money cannot buy happiness, and what incredibly wasteful lives these people led. How much they could have accomplished if they weren't so focussed on spending on lifestyle. And what fabulous lifestyles these people led, as detailed by the author. I lost count how many times Jimmy crossed the Atlantic by ship, the number of different beautiful residences and hotels he lived in in New York, Florida, the south of France, Paris, Italy. The lifestyles of the Windsors were much more extravagant - the descriptions of the jewellery, the clothes, the cars. Just fantastic. And makes the tragedy of their lives so much more poignant.

There is an awful lot of detail in this book of all the incidentals such as the ocean crossings, and which society hostess said what about another hostess, and which nightclub they were in one night, and what nightclub the next night. All a little tedious but when you put it all together as the author has done, it presents a drop jaw picture of the lives of such incredibly wealthy and privileged people from about 1920 through to the 1950s. To have money is marvellous and to have more than you need also marvellous, but to have so much that you know you will never ever run out, I think, is really more of a handicap than a joy.