Grove Press, 9780802123701, 288pp.
Publication Date: April 14, 2015
June 2014 Indie Next List
— Katie McDougall, Parnassus Books, Nashville, TN
View the List
Summer 2019 Reading Group Indie Next List
— Valerie Koehler, Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, TX
View the List
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. Set against the lush tropical landscape of 1930s New Guinea, this novel charts British anthropologist Andrew Bankson’s fascination for colleagues Nell Stone and her husband, Fen, a fascination that turns deadly. How far does the setting play a role in shaping events? Is there a sense that the three have created their own small universe on the banks of the Sepik River, far removed from the Western world? If so, by whose rules are they playing?
2. Over the course of the novel we learn a great deal about Bankson’s childhood and young adulthood. Talk about the reasons and life events that brought him to anthropology. What has led him to the brink of suicide? How seriously do you think he views his statement: “The meaning of life is the quest to understand the structure and order of the natural world—that was the mantra I was raised on. To deviate from it was suicide” (p. 32).
3. How far would you consider Nell to be the epitome of a young, independent accomplished woman? Talk about her character, her personality, work habits and motivations. Then discuss her disturbing relationship with Fen, and her inability to escape his harm. How did she end up in such an untenable situation?
4. What do the three of them really see in the tribes of New Guinea? To what extent, when unlocking the puzzles of the Kiona and the Tam, are they searching for meaning within themselves? How important is it to impending events that the Tam tribe appears to be female-dominated?
5. For all of Nell and Bankson’s heartfelt conversations, and Bankson’s keen observations of her at work, there are many important things left unsaid. Nell states: “You don’t realize how language actually interferes with communication … how it gets in the way like an overdominant sense” (p. 79). Should Bankson have understood further Nell’s sadness within her marriage, Fen’s physical abuse? As a reader, do we miss the clues too?