Reading guide for The White Mary by Kira Salak

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The White Mary

A Novel

by Kira Salak

The White Mary
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2008, 368 pages
    Sep 2009, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. What is at the heart of Marika’s quest to find Robert Lewis? What does he represent to her? How does her image of him change throughout the novel?

  2. How did your impressions of Seb shift throughout the novel? What sustains his relationship with Marika? What are its greatest challenges?

  3. How does the spiritual world of the Papua New Guineans reflect their view of themselves and their place in the world? What universal fears and rites are captured in their beliefs? Do they reflect or refute the book’s epigraph from the Gnostic gospels? Do Marika’s spiritual beliefs change as a result of her journey?

  4. During her travels, Marika is often asked if she is an anthropologist or a missionary. What do those two vocations have in common with her work as a journalist? What motivates all three groups to immerse themselves in worlds far removed from their comfort zones?

  5. Kira Salak and her family experienced profound grief when her brother, to whom the book is dedicated, died in Africa in 2005. She has said that she wanted to explore themes of similar traumatic loss in The White Mary. How do the characters respond to tragedy? Does Lewis prove to be someone “who wouldn’t let the darkness win,” as Marika describes him at the end of chapter two?

  6. What is Tobo’s role in Marika’s life? Does he give her guidance beyond geography?

  7. How did you react to the villagers’ belief that menstruating women are poisonous to men? Was Marika right to reject their ritual or, as Lewis insisted, should she have respected it? What is the appropriate way to respond to another culture’s traditions?

  8. How is Marika affected by her family’s past? How does she reconcile her own life to the legacy of her mother’s mental illness and her father’s tragic death?

  9. Marika endures sexual exploitation many times, even at the hands of Newlove when she is dangerously ill. What is different about the way Seb treats her in bed? What does sex mean to her throughout the novel? What did impotency mean to Lewis?

  10. Discuss the unique structural aspects of the novel, including the use of present tense incorporated with flashbacks. How does Salak evoke the way memory often works?

  11. What do you predict for Marika’s future? How will she be changed by her encounter with Lewis?

    Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Picador. 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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