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Ember Island

A Novel


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About The Book

In a compelling, complex story from the bestselling author of Wildflower Hill and Lighthouse Bay, two women separated by a century discover long-buried secrets in an Australian manor house.

In 1891, Tilly Kirkland is reeling with shock and guilt after her tempestuous marriage ends in horrific circumstances. Fleeing to the farthest place she knows, Tilly takes a job on Ember Island in Moreton Bay, Australia, where she becomes the governess to the prison superintendent’s precocious young daughter, Nell. Tilly knows she must keep the past hidden in order to start a new life, but she doesn’t know that Nell is watching her every move and writing it all down, hiding tiny journals all over their rambling manor home.

More than one hundred years later, bestselling novelist Nina Jones is struggling to complete her next book. A reporter asking questions about her great-grandmother sends Nina retreating to her family’s home on Ember Island, where she hopes to find her lost inspiration somewhere in the crumbling walls.

Though they are separated by years, both Tilly and Nina must learn that some secrets never stay buried, but what matters most is learning to trust your heart.


Ember Island ONE A Summer Wedding 1891
June sunshine blessed Tilly Kirkland’s wedding. Only the luckiest brides married in June, and Tilly could not believe how lucky she had been. Even though her feet were pinched by the white satin shoes, the boned corset under her silk and organza gown made it hard to breathe, and she had been smiling so energetically for so long at all the well-wishers that the muscles in her face ached, she counted herself the luckiest girl in the world. Jasper had come along at precisely the right moment, and one speedy courtship later, here she was married and on her way to a new life.

The garden of Grandpa’s house in Dorset was lush and green, flowers bright in the soft sun. Two long tables had been laid out with food, and the guests milled around happily, talking and laughing. The warm breeze lifted her hair and cooled the perspiration at the base of her scalp. The sweet-smelling orange-blossom coronet couldn’t contain her wild red curls, and she was constantly pulling strands of hair out of her mouth. A distant and very old aunt related to her in painful detail the unfortunate tale of her old dog’s recent illness and death. Tilly was relieved for a chance to frown sympathetically rather than smile, but the story was very long and she couldn’t always hear the elderly woman’s soft voice clearly over the chatter.

Tilly risked a glance away. Where was Jasper? Where was her husband?? The thought made her glow a little. Jasper, with his stylish tailcoat and gray cashmere trousers. Ever well dressed, handsome, with a dash of panache other men did not have. She returned her attention to her aunt for a few moments, then tried another stealthy glance around the garden.

There he was. The sun was bright in his golden-brown hair and his neatly trimmed sideburns. His body was lithe and erect, and he seemed to stand outside all the chatter and movement, singular and proud. His gaze roamed over the gathering and his eyes took a moment to find Tilly. In that moment, before he registered that she was regarding him, she saw something that made her stomach prickle with doubt. Was it pity in his expression? Or disdain?

But then he smiled and Tilly smiled in return, warily. Hopefully. She told herself that perhaps she was tired and imagining things. He was now the same Jasper she had always known and the shadow passed like a cloud passing over the sun.

A clumsy crash shook her out of her reverie. Voices rang out in alarm behind her, and Jasper’s expression was forgotten.

“Tilly! Tilly!”

Grandpa lay on the grass. Sharp heat speared her heart. Dishes and cups had been knocked off the table in his fall, and anxious guests were running towards him. Time slowed. He looked so pale, so old. When did he become so pale and old?

Then she was at his side, asking people to give him room to breathe, ordering cousin Godfrey to run into the village to fetch a physician.

“Grandpa? Can you hear me?”

His eyelids flickered and his right hand trembled as though he were trying to move it.

“No, no, don’t move. Relax. Be still. The physician is coming.” She stroked his forehead gently. “Be well, Grandpa, be well,” she said under her breath. But she could already feel the ship sailing away from her, pulled on a mighty tide she could neither measure nor control. She grasped Grandpa’s hand and waited.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Ember Island includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Ember Island tells the mesmerizing story of two women, separated by a century, who each discover long-buried secrets in an Australian manor house.

In 1876, Tilly, a recently married young English woman, is reeling with shock and guilt after her tempestuous marriage ends in horrific circumstances on the remote Channel Islands. Determined to get as far from England as she can, she takes on a new identity and a job on Ember Island in Moreton Bay, Australia, where she becomes the governess to a prison superintendent’s young daughter, Nell. Tilly fights her attraction to the superintendent, Sterling Holt, and befriends one the few female inmates, Hettie Thorpe, and a dangerous relationship develops. She doesn’t know that Nell is watching her every move and writing it all down, hiding tiny journals all over Starwater, her rambling manor home.

More than 100 years later, bestselling novelist Nina Jones is struggling with writer’s block and her disappointing personal life. Her poet boyfriend has recently broken up with her, and a reporter who is digging into her past insists on speaking to Nina about her great-grandmother, Nell. There are some secrets Nina may no longer be able to hide. Retreating to Starwater, she discovers Nell’s diary pages hidden in the old walls and becomes determined to solve the mystery. Though Tilly and Nina are separated by many years, Starwater House will change both of their lives.

Deeply affecting and beautifully written, Ember Island is a sweeping novel of secrets, second chances, and learning to trust your heart.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. Nina tells Joe that her great-grandmother Eleanor (Nell) Holt was “legendary in our family…She was a wild non-conformist…She was fierce” (8). What were your initial impressions of Nell? Do you think her reputation as fierce is justly deserved? Why or why not? What, if any, examples Nell’s fierceness did you observe?
2. Stacy says, “The nineteenth century wasn’t a great time to be a woman” (184). Do you think that she’s right? How does Tilly’s experience bear out this statement? Since Tilly will not inherit her grandfather’s property, what options are available to her?
3. Why is Starwater House important to Tilly, Nell, and Nina? Nina gives several explanations for her decision to stay at Starwater House longer than she has initially planned. What are the reasons she gives? Do you think these differ from the reasons that she’s actually staying?
4. Laura tells Tilly, “Expectations are the enemy of happiness” (131). What does she mean by this statement, and how does it apply to Tilly’s current situation? Do you think that Nina’s expectations have gotten in the way of her happiness, particularly with Joe? How?
5. At Tilly’s wedding, before Jasper “registered that she was regarding him, she saw something that made her stomach prickle with doubt” (2). How does this foreshadow their life in Guernsey? What were your initial impressions of Jasper? Did your feelings about him change? If so, how? Why did Tilly marry Jasper originally? Why do you think she stays after his true character is revealed?
6. Tilly’s grandfather leaves her a box of banknotes along with a short message that reads: “This is for you and nobody else. A woman should have at least something in the world.” (57). What is the effect of this gift? In what other ways does Tilly’s grandfather try to protect her? Do you think that Tilly is right to keep the banknotes when she gives Jasper her other possessions? Why or why not?
7. Nina says, “one thing I hated more than anything was being asked to speak about my historical research” (19). Why does Nina hate speaking about her writing process? Were you surprised to learn where many of Nina’s ideas came from? How does Stacy react to Nina’s disclosure? Do you agree with Stacy’s viewpoint?
8. After the accident at Lumiére Sur la Mer, Tilly feels immense guilt because “the punishment was immeasurably out of equivalence with the crime” (149). Do you agree? What were the crimes of Jasper and Chantelle? Discuss Laura’s final letter to Chantelle. Do you think that Chantelle was as complicit as Jasper in the crime against Tilly? If so, explain why.
9. Eleanor’s diary is woven through the narrative, connecting the past and the present. Discuss the ways in which it helps give insight both into the events at Starwater House during Tilly’s time and Nina’s own struggles. Did reading Nell’s diary help you see her differently? Compare how Nell represents herself in her diary to the way other characters perceive her.
10. When Joe’s father asks Nina if she is in a relationship, she lies, rationalizing her decision to do so by saying, “Joe had to know I was unavailable and it wasn’t as though I could easily tell him why. I wouldn’t be on the island for long; it didn’t matter if I lied” (167). Why does she assume a relationship with Joe could not work out? Do you agree with her assumptions and her decision to lie? How does Stacy react?
11. Fire is an important conceit throughout Ember Island and, although the thought of fire “made [Tilly’s] stomach turn to ice” (202), she is deeply connected to it. How does Freeman help establish this connection in her descriptions of Tilly? There are two significant fires in the book. Describe the effect that each has on Tilly’s life and the lives of those around her. How did Ember Island get its name? Discuss the ways in which the name of the island both alludes to the events that occur on it and Tilly’s life in Guernsey.
12. Discuss Tilly’s relationship with Hettie. In what ways are the two women alike? When Tilly decides to help Hettie she believes that “[s]he could erase her actions of the past with her actions of the present” (278). Why does Tilly think that helping Hettie will absolve her of her guilt over what happened with Jasper? Do you agree with her logic? Were you surprised that Tilly decides to help Hettie? Why?
13. In Ember Island, islands are described as “places in between; places neither here nor there, but rather places on the way somewhere” (86). How does this statement apply to both Tilly and Nina? How do each of them end up at Ember Island? Do you think that it’s a temporary stop for each of the women? Explain your reasoning.
14. After speaking with Sterling about Mr. Burton’s accusations, Tilly mutters, “the truth fixes nothing…The truth is a great burden” (260). Do you agree with Tilly or do you think Sterling is correct that “the truth fixes everything.” Does being truthful hurt or hinder Tilly and Nina? After each woman decides to be truthful, what are the results?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Nina says of Elizabeth Parrish, “Maybe I had been angry with Elizabeth Parrish because she revealed the truth: I wasn’t an artist. I’d always known that.” (p. 23) Discuss what art is with your book club. Do you think that Nina’s bestselling Widow Wayland series can be classified as art?
2. After reading Eleanor’s diary, Nina thinks, “These were my ancestors. This was my family history…Do we honour the past by projecting ourselves forward into the future? By carrying genes and traits and family stories” (176). Discuss Nina’s statement. How do you honor your own family history? Share your own photos and stories with your book club.
3. Nell is fascinated with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Read it with your book club. Discuss why you think that the story appeals to Nell.
4. Nell’s companion is her wooden cat, Pangur Ban, whose name is taken from an Old Irish poem. Read “Pangur Ban” as a book club. What does the poem say about writing and inspiration? Discuss how it relates to Nina’s writing, or your own creative process.
5. To learn more about Kimberley Freeman, read her blog and connect with her online, visit her official site at

About The Author

Photograph by Justine Walpole

Kimberley Freeman was born in London and grew up in Brisbane, Australia. She is the bestselling author of Wildflower Hill and Lighthouse Bay and teaches critical and creative writing at the University of Queensland. She lives in Brisbane with an assortment of children and pets. Visit her website at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (April 15, 2014)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476743509

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Raves and Reviews

"Freeman skillfully unites the stories of two women who live a century apart but both face the challenge of overcoming difficult pasts, and both under the lighthouse’s watchful presence. . . . Freeman’s moving tale gives her two heroines the unique chance to make a fresh start in life."

– Publishers Weekly

"The author’s description of the beautiful Australian coastline will linger with readers long after they finish the book."

– Kirkus Reviews

“Freeman weaves the two time periods together so seamlessly."

– Booklist

"What a perfect beach read. A sunken ship, buried treasure, a home on the beach by the lighthouse, sister relationships, adventure, and romance. Lighthouse Bay packs a lot into its two-pronged story."


"The novel's strength instead lies in Freeman's complex characters—capable of love and hate, shame and redemption. Both Beattie and Emma find themselves having to start over, and it is for these two women that readers cheer and sympathize."

– Publishers Weekly

"By the last satisfying scene, you may find yourself reluctantly parting with old friends who will live on once the cover has closed. Highly recommended."

– Historical Novels Review

"[Freeman] made her characters come to life, the scenery visible through her words, and the story was believable and made me want to read more."

– Book Nook Club

"The complexities of character and female relationships make this novel very rich and emotional."


"A gorgeous story of family and secrets and the redemptive power of love."

– Kate Morton, author of The Distant Hours and The Forgotten Garden

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