Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About the Book
Ben Williamson, a divorced father of two, is "slightly overweight, somewhat
shambling, not quite mysterious" and seemingly ineffectual.
But we soon learn he is also capable of a serious act.
The serious act in Lamar Herrin's elegant novel, House of the Deaf,
is a quest to avenge the accidental death of Ben's older daughter by Basque
separatists in Spain. Michelle Williamson was killed while on her junior
year abroad, caught in a bombing on her morning run. Ben is bewildered by
the loss and angered, especially by the way life moves on in the very place
Michelle dieda public park in the heart of Madrid. Ben travels to Spain in
search of answers, in search of the person or people responsible, and
finally into Basque country for a final act of revenge.
Like her father, younger daughter Annie also seeks closure. Annie wasn't
close with Michelle, and now her father seems inaccessible, indeed to have
disappeared. Through alternating chapters, the book presents the story of
Ben and his quest for revenge in Spain and the story of Annie and her quest
to locate her father both physically and emotionally. Their quests converge
in the northern Basque country where the inevitable confrontation unfolds.
The author presents a rich portrait of Spanish history and traditions
that is coupled with the very contemporary issue of how we live in these
Questions for Discussion
The author has chosen to name the novel House of the Deaf, after
Goya's painting, House of the Deaf Man. What significance do you think the
title of this book has for the story that unfolds? Why did the author choose
to elevate the House of the Deaf Man to the title, rather than Goya's Duelo a Garrotazos, which Paula felt she needed to show Ben at the
Ben is looking for a face; "he'd need a face to make a fair exchange"
for Michelle's death. Why does Ben choose Armando Ordoki over all the other
faces he sees on the streets, on television and in the newspapers he reads?
Ben's ex-wife Gail tells Annie that "the kind of love your father
believes in doesn't exist it never did." What does Gail mean by this and
how has it colored Ben's relationship with his ex-wife, his children, and
Annie makes it clear to Ben that she does not want him to tell her
where he has gone and she refrains from examining the contents of the glove
compartment after understanding that Ben's travel information is there. Why
does she not want to know where he is and what ultimately changes her mind?
Leslie, the woman in the sidewalk café, tells her story about her trip
to the Zambezi River and explains how she came to understand that they were
on the scene because the animals had decided to let them be; the animals
were the masters and the tourists were powerless intruders. Does this
vignette ring true as to other relationships in the book?
Ben believes that Michelle was a planner and knew exactly what she
wanted and how to get it, while Annie, like Ben, has a quester's belief that
at any given moment there are always destinations to be had. How did these
differences between his daughters impact their relationship with each other
and with their mother, and how do they influence Ben's relationship with his
ex-wife and daughters?
Ben spends a lot of his time contemplating the endless stream of
couples promenading on the boulevards and in the parks, and he believes he
has made a mistake with Paula when he lets them become part of promenade.
What do the promenading couples signify to Ben and how do they relate to his
daughter's death? Why did Ben think it was a mistake to join them?
Two themes are carried throughout the book, the breakdown of one's
lines and sinking into the mud. In the black-and-white Goya painting show
people whose lines have broken down, and in Duelo a Garrotazos the
duelers are knee-deep in the mud they cannot escape. Leslie's African
animals are in the mud and Patti and her daughter play in the mud; Ben's
ex-wife believes he is bogged down in mud or quicksand. Ben and Paula look
in the mirror and see their lines breaking down; Armando Ordoki's face is
like wax, breaking down. What do these two themes have in common and why are
they important to the story?
At the conclusion of the book Annie plans to stay awhile with Ben and
Paula and leave them in peace: "One day you'll look for me and I'll be
gone." Why is Annie determined to leave in this way? Is her decision
influenced by her label as the "back-up daughter"?
Ben remembers his early impression of the Basque separatists as brave
and heroic in their self-sacrifice; at first they seemed to him superior
beings defending their claim to self-determination and independence. The
same could be said for freedom fighters in World War II committing acts of
violence against their German oppressors. But when one of those "heroic"
acts of violence causes the death of an innocent loved one, are the
perpetrators still superior beings and freedom-fighters, or are they
terrorists? At the conclusion of the book, what are Ben's feelings about the
Basque separatists? How do you feel about the Basques and their cause after
reading this book? Do you think your answer might be different if you had
read this book before September 11, 2001?
Recommended Reading Saturday Ian McEwan Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Jonathan Safran Foer Lords of Navarre: A Basque Family Saga José Maria Lacambra-Loizu Death of a Nationalist Rebecca Pawel The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera Disgrace J. M. Coetzee The Honorary Consul Graham Greene.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Unbridled Books.
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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