Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Discuss Owen and Adelaide's relationship and how it is affected by their different social and economic statuses. How are their views of each other influenced by each other's perception, rather than the reality of their feelings?
Discuss the similarities and differences between how Owen and Argus deal with being orphans. How do the memories of their fathers continue to impact them? How does the necessity of being independent at a young age impact them later in life?
What are Owen's motivations for going on the voyage? What do you think influences him the most? Discuss Captain Terrapin's statement that "all men are equal at sea." (p. 129) Do you find this to be true?
Discuss the role of women in the novel. Think about Adelaide, her mother Margaret, and Malini. How do they exert influence over the men in their lives? How do they see their role in society?
Among the Melanesian languages featured in the novel there is no future tense. What does this say about the Melanesian people? Who in this novel is living in the past, the present, or the future?
Owen recalls, "His own interest in objects, from the native to the urban, had always been about the story each one represented, about possessing material proof of something transient" (p. 126). What are the motivations of other collectors? What do such objects and artifacts mean to different characters? Think about Argus's reaction to seeing the tools of his ancestors in the museum: "These items did not belong to the white men but had they saved them from oblivion? He couldn't know what was true." (p. 392) What do you believe?
Why do Argus and Malini agree to act like savages and be put on display? Do you think they come to regret their choice? What do you think impacts Jethro's sanity? Is it the snake bite, or something else? Malini thinks, "Weather and time; she was beginning to understand that these were two of the clayskin gods." (p. 354) Do you agree? Do you find that true in present day?
Why does Owen keep the effigy? He says, "It stood for all that waited beyond the brink. All that could arrive without invitation." (p. 434) What does he mean by this statement?
Discuss the symbolism of the house Owen restores. He has been dismantling houses and relocating objects all his life - why is it suddenly important to him to put something back together?
Reread Argus's thoughts as he confronts Jethro on page 456: "His sister, his island, his own boyhood self, they had all be defiled, each in their own way." Why does Argus react the way he does in this scene? Do you think he does the right thing?
Discuss the significance of the section headers. How do they tie together and emphasize parallels within the story?
Death plays a large role in this novel. Contrast different characters' and different cultures' and social ranks' views of death, burial, and the afterlife.
The novel employs extensive foreshadowing. How is it used as a literary device? What major events did you notice were foreshadowed? How did this impact your reading?
Early in the book, the narrative is written from the perspectives of Owen and Argus, but later opens up to include limited perspectives from Adelaide, Malini, Jethro, and Hale. Is there anyone else you would have liked to hear more from? How did this contribute to the novel?
Discuss the customs and rituals presented in the novel, both of the native islanders and the Americans on the ship and in the city. What role does tradition and familial obligation play in the characters' lives?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Washington Square Press.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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