Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Nine-year-old Louis Drax lies in a coma in a hospital bed, re-living the events that led to his near-fatal fall into a ravine. Despite being attracted to the boy's mother Natalie Drax, Louis' doctor, Pascal Dannachet, begins reluctantly to question her version of Louis' accident and the apparent culpability of her missing husband. As the boy struggles to communicate from within his coma, the chilling truth emerges.
In this taut psychological thriller Liz Jensen explores the many ways in which people can manipulate one another, from perverting the close bonds of a mother-son relationship to the exploitation of pity and sexual attraction.
Louis is a deeply disturbed child to whom violence is commonplace. His schoolmates call him 'Wacko Boy', and his visits to a child psychologist leave the specialist baffled but admiring of Louis's precocious intelligence. For his ninth birthday, Louis and his mother share a picnic with Louis' father Pierre, who has recently left the family. But the outing ends in a violent row during which Pierre apparently pushes Louis into a ravine and then goes on the run. Miraculously revived after being declared dead, Louis is transferred to a coma clinic in Provence, where, still comatose, he encounters the dream-like figure of a man calling himself Gustave.
Dr Dannachet welcomes the challenge of treating Louis but is unprepared for the power of his attraction to Natalie. His pity for her distressed state tips over into a sexual attraction that both shocks him and leaves him vulnerable. Natalie is convinced that Louis's father is stalking her and when mysterious letters begin to arrive her anxiety seems well-founded. As Gustave gently guides Louis towards the truth and Louis finds his own way to communicate, Natalie's true role in Louis' accident - resisted at every turn by Dr Dannachet is finally revealed by means of a controversial mind experiment.
- Why do you think Liz Jensen chose to preface her novel with a quotation from Paul Broks's Into the Silent Land? How would you interpret it in relation to Louis?
- "But look, before I plunge further into the story of Louis, let me tell you that I was a different man then' (page 22). How is Dr Dannachet changed by what happens? How would you describe him before and after? How does Jensen convey his character?
- How successful is Jensen at capturing the voice of a deeply disturbed nine-year-old? What techniques does she use to convey Louis's character? How does Louis view the adult world? How has that view been shaped?
- The novel is narrated by Louis and by Dr Dannachet. How effective did you find this structure?
- Jensen chooses an almost supernatural means of revealing the truth about Louis's accident? How successful is this device?
- When Dr Dannachet reveals his doubts about Natalie, Jacqueline says 'It's not something that crosses your mind though, is it? Why would it cross anyone's mind?' (page 196). Had the possibility of Louis's abuse crossed your mind and if so at what point? To what extent did you sympathise with Dr Dannachet's feelings for Natalie, even when faced with what she has done?
- What do you make of Natalie's last words: 'I always saved him
I never let him die. You have to protect your child. I love my son. I love my son more than anything in the world.' (page 212)?
- At what point did you guess Gustave's identity and why?
- When reflecting on Natalie's manipulation of men Detective Charvillefort says 'Men want to think the best of women, especially if they're attractive. Isn't there some truth in that? That we attribute moral goodness to attractive people?' (page 216). What do you think of this statement? What does the novel have to say about assumptions about male and female roles?
- 'If you make a choice, and it's wrong, you have to live with it. Everyone has to live with the consequences. You chose, Louis. It was your choice.' (page 226). To what extent do you agree with Natalie's assertion that Louis made a choice? What do you think of his choice for his ninth life?
- 'I still tend towards optimism, still believe just as firmly in the power of hope.' (page 222) thinks Dr Dannachet, despite all that has happened. What grounds, if any, does he have? Does the book end on a note of optimism?
- The novel can be described as a psychological thriller. How does Jensen maintain suspense and momentum in her narrative?
- Jensen has described this as her first 'grown up' novel. What do you think she means by that?
- Jensen has said that she thought her book would be impossible to film yet Anthony Minghella (director of The English Patient and Cold Mountain) has chosen to direct the film version. What difficulties do you think he will encounter in adapting the book? Who would you cast for the film?
- Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
- The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe
- White Oleander by Janet Fitch
- Mouthing the Words by Camilla Gibb
- Last Things by Jenny Offil
- Vernon God Little by D B C Pierre
- The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
- The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall
- Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology by Paul Broks
- Awakenings by Oliver Sacks
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Bloomsbury USA.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.