Book Club Discussion Points
Melanie is available to for book club sessions via Skype, (schedule permitting)
The Gloaming / SHAME
1) How differently does the author present “Africa” from other books you’ve read which are set in that continent?
2) In her research for the book, the author encountered a number of people who had done terrible things that were not crimes: a bus driver whose poor decision to cross a flooded river led to the death of more than 30 passengers, a pilot (like Harry) who killed a group of children when landing on a bush strip too late in the evening. Many of these legally innocent perpetrators suffered internal or “karmic” collapse. The bus driver got cancer within a year, the pilot committed suicide. In our culture we have no legal or social mechanisms for atonement. Discuss how this affected Pilgrim.
3) Have you heard of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa? Or the Gacaca trials in Rwanda? Or our own Court Diversion in the US? All offer potential for forgiveness and relief aside from the strict legal application of justice.
4) Pilgrim is often seen as passive, a trophy wife without a career, friends or personal interest. Her dependance on her successful husband and her submission to events makes her unsympathetic to some readers. While in Butiama, she realizes: “All my life has been a segue. Meeting Tom. Being left by Tom. Even the accident. Even Magulu.” Do you find her frustrating or relateable? And how does her recognition of her passivity change her – or not?
5) Dr. Dorothea bemoans the theft of her equipment by locals, their superstitions, and the pointlessness of her job without adequate government support for the provision of basic healthcare resources - “Not even a blood-pressure cuff.” The author spent three years living in rural Tanzania, working with healthcare providers and communities who faced exactly these kinds of issues. (There is one doctor per 50,000 Tanzanians – a worse ratio in war-torn Somalia.) Were you shocked that the situation is so dire? Has the book helped you understand the challenges of improving rural healthcare in the developing world?
6) Fate and free will are at loggerheads in this book. As Detective Strebel points out, the very fact that everyone got out of bed on the morning of March 29 set in motion the tragic events. Even a small alteration in routine would have changed the outcome. Who exerts free will, and when, and how does this affect the outcome?
7) How and why does Strebel manipulate the outcome of the inquest? Do you think he was right to do this?
8) “Memory is narrative,” Strebel says, “It is not truth. It is the worst witness… People swear they remember a man in a red coat, when we know it was a blue one. Or they remember a man in a hat because their father wore one.” Do you agree? And why does he believe it’s so important to create a narrative?
9) When Pilgrim finally remembers what happened on the morning of March 29, do you think this is her real memory, or a narrative she’s compiled?
10) Strebel finds that his laptop is “as useful as a fur hat” in Tanga. Throughout the book, there are clashes of culture, how things are done in the West versus how they are in rural Tanzania. One of the author’s favorite lines is from My Traitor’s Heart, Rian Malan’s autobiography about growing up white in South Africa: “In order to live anywhere in the world, you must know how to live in Africa.” The white characters (including Martin Martins) learn something about how to live in Africa that affects how they view themselves and how they live.
11) In contrast, the black characters – the policeman Kessy and Dr. Dorothea – seem trapped in hopeless situations, the result of corruption and inefficiency. Kessy laughs at his own helplessness in combating local smuggling: “Who is going to stop them? Me? With my club? My torch? My laws?” Dr. Dorothea’s two sons have been abducted by their Kenyan father and she has no legal right to custody. The best she can do is try to share similar weather with them by being as close to the Kenyan border as possible. They believe they cannot rely on authorities or law to make anything right. How do they deal with such defeat?
12) Strebel’s wife, Ingrid, tells him that horror is inconvenient, coming at you on the TV news before dinner. “You resent it, she’d said, and you feel bad resenting it, and wonder what you should do to not feel bad. But the only solution is to undergo some kind of fundamental change in how you live your life… It’s so big, so impossible and awkward, and the easiest thing - therefore – is to feed the cat instead or buy more washing powder.” How do you, personally, make sense of the chaos and horror in the world?
13) In the fish factory in Tanga, where Strebel is brought to identify Ernst Koppler’s body, he notices “A jar filled with frangipani blossoms...the makeshift reverence for the room...the cleanliness of the sheet… that someone had combed Koppler’s hair.” He is moved and surprised that so much care has been taken. How does this help him reconcile himself?
14) Harry believes in ghosts. “The universe was an awfully big place and had to be filled with something...Why should the dead simply be dead?” Trace the trajectory of the boy in the white shirt. He appears at key moments in the book. What are your feelings about his presence? Is he, as Harry believes, a ghost? Or a manifestation of his guilty conscience – his “narrative”? Or a number of different children, among a continent of millions, who are ragged and thin, real and ubiquitous?
15) Gloria is a conflicted character, all sharp edges in a large, soft body. She berates Pilgrim (whom she’s essentially set up for murder by Koppler): “Have you ever done anything good? Anything beautiful? Have you created anything? Music? Art? Have you made anything better? Even in a small way? A small light in this dark world? Have you even been happy?” She further states: “Life is full of sorrow and shittiness. It’s what you make of it anyway.” How does this compare to Ingrid’s frustration with fathomless global suffering?
16) Martin Martins is odious, his pathology embedded in what he calls “The Dark Incontinent.” When he’s taunted by villagers while he tried to fix his car, Pilgrim observes: “But they would kill him, too, hang him from a meat hook, hack him to pieces with a machete. They are bound together merchant of violence and his victims, as if they need each other; as if, like a snake eating its tail, there is no distinction.” What is she saying about the cycle of violence, and do you agree?
17) Consider his attitude in light of the closing chapter, when he and his friend Franco are asked for a tip by a group of soldiers in order that they’ll be killed quickly.
18) What does Martin do at the very close of the novel? And do you think it’s relevant that he is the one telling this last story?