Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Motherland includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club and a Q&A with author William Nicholson. . 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.
Motherland, an epic story of friendship, war, love, and loss, opens in England during World War II and unfolds in a decade of its aftermath. Best friends and marines Ed and Larry both love the same woman, but it's Ed, the handsome hero, who wins Kitty's heart at first sight. As dependable Larry remains quietly in the background, unable but waiting to reveal his true feelings, Kitty's marriage slowly unravels as the psychological effect of post-war life takes its toll on Ed. Spanning the globe from England and France to India and Jamaica, Motherland follows these three characters through life's triumphs and tragedies, dreams and defeats, that will impact generations to come.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1.When Alice travels to Normandy, her grandmother Pamela tells her there was one true love story in the family. To whom do you think she was referring–Kitty and Ed, or Kitty and Larry? Discuss why.
2.How might the current generation, including Guy Caulder and his daughter Alice Dickinson, repeat the past joys and mistakes of their family? How can knowing the stories of the past guide them along the way?
3.The prologue states, “You lead the life you choose to lead.” How does this statement set the tone for Motherland?
4.Ed says to Larry, “You can’t deny that most people are unhappy most of the time” (p. 115). Discuss the feelings of unhappiness felt by the characters throughout the story. What outside influences made an impact, and how did each contribute to their own sorrow?
5.Larry says to Kitty, “There are so few good men in books” (p. 103). In what ways are the men in Motherland good, and how are they bad?
6.Kitty has a seemingly magnetic beauty and personality that makes men like Ed and Larry fall in love with her. What about her is so alluring?
7.Before the battle at Dieppe, Kitty says about Ed’s inherent sadness, “I think that’s almost what makes me love him the most” (p. 107). How does this foreshadow Kitty’s future with Ed?
8.The raid on the beaches at Dieppe is viewed as one of the worst disasters of the war. Compare Larry’s and Ed’s experiences at Dieppe, and the repercussions it had on each of them.
9.The Victoria Cross is a double-edged sword for Ed. Discuss his role as a reluctant hero.
10.How does fear impact Larry Cornford—as a soldier, an artist, a son, a husband, and a businessman? In what area of his life is he most fearless?
11.Throughout Motherland, seemingly perfect marriages (Kitty and Ed, Larry and Geraldine, Louisa and George) all have their problems. How does each person contribute to the success or failure of their relationship?
12.Compare Larry’s relationships with Nell and Geraldine, and the role of sex in each.
13.Compare Ed’s roles as a husband and father. What is he able to provide for Pamela that he cannot give to Kitty, and how does this impact their family dynamic?
14.Cecil Owen describes India and Jamaica as “angry children.” He says, “if you spend 300 years telling people they’re children, they become afraid to go out alone” (p. 457). How does this tie into the greater themes of both Fyffes and the title Motherland?
15.Motherland explores the roles of marriage, love, and happiness. Discuss where these themes intersect and where they do not.
16.London’s The Sunday Times has said that author William Nicholson’s writing “widens one’s sense of what it means to be human.” How does Motherland achieve this?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. William Nicholson is perhaps best known for his Academy Award-nominated screenplays for Shadowlands and Gladiator. To get a greater sense of the author’s body of work, watch one of his films.
2. Discuss whom you would cast in the lead roles of Kitty, Ed, and Larry if Motherland were adapted into a movie.
3. Larry remains a loyal friend to Ed despite his love for Ed’s wife. Discuss a time when you sacrificed your own wants or needs to help a friend or loved one.
4. Motherland centers on a story of true love. What is the greatest love story you’ve ever heard?
5. Compare Nicholson’s writing to contemporary authors such as John Updike, Philip Roth, and Jonathan Franzen. What are some of the common themes in their work?
6. World War II took a serious toll on the post-war psyches of Larry and Ed, well after the conflict ended. Visit a site like http://www.uso.org to learn ways to support troops coming home from combat.
A Conversation with William Nicholson
What kind of research did you do to create such a detailed portrayal of pre- and post-war England?
I’ve been planning Motherland for years and have amassed a small library on its many subjects; the novel has required a very great deal of research, most of it in the traditional way (I list some of the source books in my Author’s Note at the end). The Dieppe Raid was covered in great detail by war correspondents at the time. The history of Fyffes, the banana company, has been written, and I have benefitted from private works owned by my friend David Stockley, whose family founded Fyffes. Then of course the Internet turns out to be a source of wonders. I learned a great deal there from posts by old soldiers.
The bio on your website mentions that your mother loved your father at first sight. Were your parents in any part inspiration for Kitty, Ed, and Larry?
Sadly my parents’ marriage was not a success, though for very different reasons than Kitty and Ed. No, I don’t think my parents are featured here, at least not directly. I would say that Ed and Larry are both formed of different aspects of myself. I might even go further and suggest that Kitty is me also, except that this would baffle most people. Writing is a mysterious business, by which the writer becomes each character as he writes.
Motherland tackles profound themes, such as passion, doubt, duty, honor, and faith. How did your own inquisitiveness about faith impact the characters’ struggles with religion and God?
Like my main characters, I was educated at a Catholic monastic boarding school, Downside. I’ve been struggling with the mystery of God and religion all my life, finding it impossible to believe and yet wanting to believe, and this forms a constant theme in all my work. In Motherland I’ve dramatized this tension through the disagreements between Larry and Ed, and in Larry’s own development.
You’ve stated that you believed yourself to be forever in search of the one true love. How did your search impact the novel’s theme of true love?
My love life has been messy. I’ve had many disastrous relationships, one of which forms the direct model for the Larry-Nell affair in the novel. But in more recent years –since the age of forty–I’ve experienced what it’s like to have a deeply loving marriage. I never stop thinking about what it takes to find and keep true love, and what that means. Now I watch my own children as they grow up and take their own faltering steps in love, and my heart is in my mouth. So yes, everything I write is about the nature of love, just as it’s about the puzzle of God.
Much of what you write is linked, and many of the landmarks and fictional characters in Sussex repeat throughout your novels. How much of a character is Sussex throughout your writing? How did you continue the storyline in Motherland, and how did you choose which details of your previous books to include in the narrative?
For some years now I’ve been at work on what is in fact a massive sequence of linked novels. Each one stands alone, but the same characters recur, in different stages of their lives. My intention is to convey the complexity of people’s lives, the way we never know what’s going on inside others, and how, if we did, we would feel compassion, even love, for them. The first three novels follow the lives of a group of people in my home territory of Sussex, from the year 2000 to 2010. With Motherland I’ve gone back in time to trace the ancestors of some of these characters, to show what’s gone into the making of them. If you so wish, you can find in my other books what happened to Kitty and Ed’s grandson Guy Caulder, and great-granddaughter Alice Dickinson. In the next book in the series you can follow Kitty and Ed’s daughter Pamela into the 1960s. And all the time you get glimpses of the same Sussex landscape through changing times.
Larry and Kitty are both avid readers—Larry says, “all the best characters are bad” (p. 103). Do you agree with this sentiment? Who are some of your favorite characters in literature?
No, I don’t agree. My favourite characters are always the ones who struggle to lead good lives–Dorothea in Middlemarch, Pierre in War and Peace. But it must be admitted that Rosamund Vincy, the selfish pretty heroine of one of Middlemarch’s plots, is a wonderful creation.
The raid on the beaches at Dieppe plays a central role in the action. How did you prepare for this? Was Mountbatten based on a particular figure?
The raid was mounted from a port near my home, and I’ve known about it for a long time. My research was extremely thorough, through books, news reports, and firsthand accounts. Lord Mountbatten is a real person, a controversial figure in recent British history, who was assassinated by the IRA in 1979. He has turned out to be one of the linking figures both in Motherland and in the book that will follow it. I find him a fascinating character, full of faults, and yet I’ve come to love and admire him.
Ed appears to suffer from what we now know to be PTSD. What kind of research did you do to get into the psyche of a soldier and prisoner of war?
My wife, Virginia Nicholson, is a social historian, whose most recent book, Millions Like Us, traces the impact of war on the lives of women in World War II. Her work gives a vivid picture of the emotional devastation of wartime marriages, and I’ve been strongly influenced by all she recounts. I’ve done no academic research into PTSD.
You write female characters, such as Kitty and Geraldine, with intimate knowledge and empathy. How do you navigate the differences between women and men in your work? Who was the most challenging character to bring to life throughout the story?
It’s hard for me to explain what it is I do when I write characters, because it sounds so unlikely, but the nearest I can get is to say that when I write a female character, I am a woman. Obviously I’m not a woman, and can’t pretend to be having a woman’s experiences, but I have made it my life’s work to understand what it feels like to be a woman. This began when I was young and longed to be loved by women, and used empathy as a form of seduction, I suppose. Since then it’s grown and grown, because when writing I find that it’s mostly through the female characters that I’m able to explore what interests me most. I think this is because I’m very emotional myself and want to explore emotional states; and while it’s not true that women are more emotional than men, it is true that they are more willing to take an interest in and talk about their emotional lives. I have never ceased learning from all the women I know and every new woman I meet. In this sense, insight into the not-me, which is a writer’s stock-in-trade, applies equally to all the characters. I’ve never been a soldier, or a businessman, or a little girl, but it’s my job to become these people, to the best of my ability, as I write.
What prompted you to expand beyond post-war England to the more global depiction of India at the time of the partition and the banana trade in Jamaica? How did you go about bringing these events to life, and what do they contribute to the greater story in Motherland?
I wanted to tell a story through many years, in order to track the central love stories; and if you do that, you have to think about what your characters are actually doing all this time. They can’t just go on about love. They must have jobs, work lives, connections with the greater world. In pursuit of a wider context for Larry, I settled on the banana trade and a plot, which I think quite unusual in literature, of a man born into a family firm who seeks to be an artist (a common theme) but who finds his fulfillment back in the family firm. Working out this arc required all sorts of plotting, particularly given the war in the middle of it all; and so slowly I realised that his journey would take him to India, and then to Jamaica. This in turn gave me another angle on my overall theme of emotional heritage, but on an empire scale. Britain referred to itself as the motherland, thus infantilizing millions of people around the globe. As you can see, my notion of ‘motherland’ is very nuanced.
Do you believe Ed ultimately found peace? What do you think the future held for Kitty and Larry?
Ed does not have a peaceful nature. Suicide is an act of despair and extinction, not a search for peace. I love Ed, but I think he was too damaged to be saved. Kitty and Larry, however, once they got over the guilt of Ed’s death, made the kind of loving marriage that I have myself. So there at least is a happy ending.
As an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, are there any plans to bring Motherland to the big screen? How would you envision adapting such an epic love story for a film?
I think the book is almost impossible to fit into a film: it’s just too long. It would ruin the story to make it gallop along at too fast a pace. Maybe it’s better suited to a multi-part TV series, which would allow the twists and turns of the characters’ lives to play out in full. But this isn’t something I think about. Motherland is in its perfect form as a big novel; it’s not a film script in waiting.