A reading group club selection: The High Places by Fiona McFarlane.
The dazzling stories in this collection find those moments when people confront the strangeness and mystery of their lives. The revelations of intimidating old friends on holiday. An accident on a dark country road. A marine biologist in conversation with the ghost of Charles Darwin. The sudden arrival of American parachutists in a Queensland country town. A lottery win. A farmer troubled by miracles in the middle of a drought… The people in The High Places are jolted into seeing themselves from a fresh and often disconcerting perspective.
Reading Group Questions
- In ‘Exotic Animal Medicine’, what do you think of Sarah’s decision not to report the accident? What do the events of the story tell you about the characters of her and David? What impact, if any, will the accident have on their marriage?
- Discuss the ways in which class is signified in ‘Art Appreciation’. And what do you think the cloak signifies in this story – the one Henry feels to be draped across his shoulders in the final scene?
- Compare the two marriages in ‘Mycenae’, the Dwyer’s seemingly dull but strong, the Andersons’ the opposite. How important would you say Greece is to this story? Is Eric a god with feet of clay?
- Consider the number of references to and images of birds in this collection – the stories that feature them, characters who look like them, birds that appear peripherally. In ‘Man and Bird’, for example, the parrot is implicitly a messenger of God, but what of the birds in other stories?
- Discuss the way in which James’s father has constructed the story of the lead-up to the accident in ‘Unnecessary Gifts’, and the accident itself – how satisfyingly has he told it? Why do you think he wonders to himself, Really? Can this be all? What does this story suggest to you about surveillance in modern life?
- What is the underlying story in ‘Those Americans Falling from the Sky’, in your opinion? What role does Edith play in it?
- Among other things, ‘Rose Bay’ is about the way children might deal with death. Discuss this and the story’s other elements, as you see them.
- ‘Violet, Violet’ offers, in part, an unusual take on loneliness. What else is going on in this story for you?
- ‘The Movie People’ shows the power of virtual life over real life, the potential for it to overwhelm daily existence. In this story it’s the world of a movie, but do you think a wider point is being made here?
- In ‘Cara Mia’ Cara has assumed the role of mother in the family. Considering her position, as the daughter of a self-centred woman who was only a child herself when she had Cara, do you think it’s inevitable that she fantasises about her mother’s lover?
- ‘Buttony’ depicts a lonely, weary teacher projecting heavily onto a boy in her class. Joseph has a strange charisma that enchants the other children as well as his teacher: discuss the way in which this story presents the dark side of that charm, and how easily it can turn into something else.
- ‘Good News for Modern Man’ is a character study of a mind in a state of unravelling. Discuss Bill Birch’s character, mental state, loss of faith, and his conversations with Darwin about Mabel’s evolution.
- Thematically, The High Places concerns change, the unchangeable and acceptance, but how do you read this story?
- Consider the themes that run through this collection, and the way in which they link individual stories.
Ranging around the world from a remote Pacific island to outback Australia to the tourist haunts of Greece, these stories are written with extraordinary invention, great emotional insight and wry humour. Each one of them is as rich and rewarding as literature can be.Buy now
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