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.
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Introduction 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 http://KimberleyFreeman.com/