DISCUSSION QUESTIONS... by book title
Coming in May, 2020
1. One of the epigraphs quotes the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore: "Man has in him the silence of the sea, the noise of the earth and the music of the air." What is the significance of silence in this story, both as a metaphor and as an element in the plot?
2. As Claire contemplates evacuation in the opening of the novel, she muses: "She'd come to the Andamans mistaking youthful ambition as a virtue, and it took her a long time to realize that ambition is worthless unless it's rooted in human understanding." What are Claire's regrets in this moment? How does this thought relate to the larger themes of colonization, war, and independence that are woven through the story?
3. While establishing herself on Ross Island, Claire observes, "Prejudice in British India…was actively transferable and widely embraced." How does this transfer of prejudice shape Naila's identity and affect her relationship with Leyo?
4. When Claire spies Naila feeding baby Ty a bottle of water, she likens Ty's response to "a gesture of devotion." Why is this moment significant? What are the dueling impulses that complicate Claire's relationship with Naila, and with Ty?
5. On their first field trip into the forest, Shep offers to operate on the club foot of little Jodo. Why does Jodo's mother refuse? Why does Shep's offer remain a source of friction and distrust among the Biya later in the story?
6. "The nerve" is a phrase that Claire recalls her father whispering once as they gazed at a Gauguin painting of Polynesia. Why did he utter this phrase with envy? Why is this memory important to Claire as the story unfolds?
7. We meet two indigenous Andamanese tribes – the Biya and the Jarawa -- in this book. How does Claire's view of these native islanders change as she interacts with them? How does her evolution as an anthropologist alter the fate of her son?
8. The spectres of Claire's dead brother and Shep's unyielding father loom over the Durants as they struggle to balance their respective passions while raising Ty. How do their childhood conflicts influence their decisions as parents?
9. Naila's teacher Sen instills the lesson in her: "Master the map and you master the world." How does Leyo's sense of the world ultimately alter Naila's understanding of "map mastery"?
10. Shep, Claire, and Naila each communicate differently with Ty. How do these differences reflect their own personalities and emotional needs?
11. As young parents in an era before modern insights into early childhood development, Claire and Shep are mystified and frustrated by Ty's delayed speech. How does this frustration impact their marriage? How might you respond if Ty were your child today?
12. Why don't Shep and Claire leave the Andamans with Ty after the earthquake and tsunami force them off Ross Island?
13. As a boy in Shanghai, Shep memorized many lines from Rudyard Kipling's Kim, a novel that seems to haunt him. Why does this story from his childhood have such a strong hold on him?
14. What makes Shep's sister Vivian a vital character in this story?
15. How does Major Baird surprise Shep? What does Shep learn from him?
16. Why do many of Port Blair's "local born" residents welcome the prospect of the Japanese occupation?
17. Why is Porubi both a pivotal and largely unnoticed character? In what ways does he embody the history of colonized indigenous people?
18. Why does Shep burn the overland map of his escape route?
19. Claire both needs and despises Denis Ward. Why does she ultimately conclude that he's more "human" than she acknowledged? Do you agree?
20. Why does the narration switch to first person in the Epilogue? What does that tell us about the perspective that shapes this novel?
21. The theme of atonement runs through this story. What are the "original sins" that the primary characters feel compelled to atone for?
1. In the opening pages, Kamla states that “Joanna Shaw rescued me in her way, and I tried to return the favor.” How and why did Joanna need to be “rescued,” or was that need only in Kamla’s mind? Was Kamla successful in her attempt to return the favor?
2. Joanna Shaw is a social worker who attempts to rescue girls who’ve been trafficked into India’s sex trade. What does her chosen profession reveal about her character? Why is this important within the overall story?
3. “Flash House” is a Victorian term for brothel – or house of prostitution. Kamla escapes from just such a house, but how does the metaphor of the “flash house” reflect other aspects of the novel?
4. Early in the novel, Joanna Shaw’s boss, Hari, lectures her about the horrors India suffered during Partition. “I try to remember what a short time you have been in India,” he tells her, “you have no idea what is rape…” Is this meant as an indictment of American naiveté, or as a plea for help? How does Joanna’s relative unfamiliarity with Asia’s recent history affect her choice to pursue Aidan?
5. Throughout this novel the characters make reference to the Great Game, the historical rivalry between Britain and Russia for control of the northern access routes to the Indian subcontinent. Why and how is the Great Game relevant to the political intrigues that engulf Joanna, Aidan, Kamla, and Lawrence in Sinkiang? Are there parallels you can draw between the Great Game and world political events today?
6. All four of the main characters – Joanna, Lawrence, Simon, and Kamla – live outside their native states and cultures. They are, in effect, stateless, so that this becomes a story about the expatriate experience. In what ways is this a shared experience for all four characters? How and why is this experience different for each of them? How does their mutual statelessness impact their choices and interactions?
7. Absence is a critical theme throughout this story. Aidan’s absence drives Joanna’s actions through much of the novel. Kamla and Simon both are marked by parental absence. Lawrence mourns the loss of his son. What are the effects of absence on the emotions and behavior of the characters?
8. Although the novel is told through alternating chapters in three different voices, the story is bookended by sections written from Kamla’s point of view as an elderly woman. How does this perspective shape the overall story? Why do you think the author selected Kamla rather than Joanna as the primary narrator?
9. Aimee Liu has said that her earliest drafts of FLASH HOUSE were written from the perspective of Simon as a grown man. Why do you think she abandoned this approach? How would it have altered the story for you if Simon had been telling the tale?
10. What questions does the story raise about the impulse to rescue? Is rescue, as described in the story, intrinsically moral, emotional, or pragmatic? What links does the story suggest between acts of rescue and acts of love?
11. In the epilogue Kamla states, “What mattered most in the end was not right or wrong. It was not politics or fidelity or even understanding. Certainly it was not the act of rescue. It was simply our mutual ineptitude at love.” Is Kamla a reliable narrator? What does she mean by “our mutual ineptitude at love”?
1. How does Hope’s mixed-race ancestry influence her decision to marry Paul?
2. How does Paul’s revolutionary zeal affect his decision to marry Hope?
3. Why does Paul discourage Hope from writing articles based on the stories he tells her?
4. What does Paul mean when he calls the politics of the early Chinese Republic a “mirror game”?
5. Do Hope and Paul share the same view of Dr. Sun Yat-sen as hero of the Chinese Revolution?
6. Why does Jin become estranged from his father, even as he grows closer to Hope?
7. Why does Hope feel that she can neither trust nor ignore her friend Sarah?
8. Why does Sarah say that race matters more in Shanghai than anywhere else?
9. Why does Hope hate Paul’s pet phrase, “mei fatse”?
10. What does Paul mean when he calls Hope his “middle ground”?
11. Is Hope’s relationship with Stephen Mann an indication of her weakness or her strength?
12. Why does Nai-li insist that Hope be present for her death and funeral?
13. Does Borodin trap Paul, or does Paul allow himself to be placed under house arrest in Wuchang?
14. Why can’t Hope reveal her true role in Paul’s rescue?
15. When does Hope decide what her reply to Paul’s 1939 letter must be?