Book Title: 

1. What do you think the title means? Who in the novel is seeking clemency, who deserves it, and who receives it?

2. When you first read the epigraph from E. M. Forster, what did you think it meant? Now that you've read the novel, how has your understanding changed?

3. Who is the main character in this novel? Is there more than one? Who did you most, and least, enjoy spending time with? Which character undergoes the greatest transformation? In what ways is he/she transformed?

4. Before reading the novel, how familiar were you with contemporary British history? How did that affect your reading experience?

5. What role does economics play in the characters' lives? How does the miners' strike affect them?

6. “Mardy,” “Nesh,” “The Giant Rat of Sumatra”… What do the titles of the novel's ports signify? How do they help to organize the novel?

7. Several of the female characters believe that, by using sex, “you could make someone do what you wanted them to do” (page 241).What are the ramifications of this? Do any of the men use sex in a similar way?

8. The notion of keeping secrets-anything from Nick's double life to Tim's obsession with Sandra-is a major theme in the novel. Who benefits by being circumspect, and who is damaged by it? What do you think the novel demonstrates about secrets?

9. Compare Katherine's relationships with Malcolm and with Nick. What does she get from each of them? Why does she stay with Malcolm? Why does Malcolm stay with her, especially after Nick's testimony?

10. Discuss the scene in which Katherine kills Tim's snake. How does this one act affect everyone in the Sellers and Glover families?

11. In what ways are the two families alike? How are they different?

12. What is the significance of “the game,” which Francis and, eventually, Tim play at school? How does it foreshadow their adult lives?

13. Reread the passage about family life that begins at the bottom of page 235. In your own life, do you find this to be accurate? How does having an audience make a family more cohesive?

14. Why doesn't Daniel tell his parents about Tim's visits to Andrew in the hospital (pages 244-245)? How might things have changed if he had?

15. Several ancillary characters-Anthea, Andrew, Sonia-have their own side-stories. What do these contribute to your understanding of the main characters' behavior?

16. Why do you think Sandra changes her name?

17. Take another look at Francis's confessions to his mother (pages 524-525). Do you think Alice hears what he's saying? How does this figure into his final scene, on the train (pages 589-590)?

18. Which character(s) have what you consider to be happy endings? Why?

19. “So the garden-” What is your opinion of the author's twist at the end? How did it affect your understanding of what you'd read? Was it a satisfying ending?


Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes; Zadie Smith, White Teeth; Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections; Philip Roth, American Pastoral


Philip Hensher's novels include Kitchen Venom, which won the Somerset Maugham Award, and The Mulberry Empire, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Chosen by Granta as one of its best young British novelists, he is professor of creative writing at Exeter University and a columnist for The Independent. He lives in London.

Reading Guide Publisher: 
Random House