Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Swimming at Night includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lucy Clarke. 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.
The relationship between sisters is never simple, as Lucy Clarke illustrates in her debut novel, Swimming at Night. Katie and Mia shared the ups and downs of sisterhood—the fierce love and loyalty, the friendship, as well as the jealousy, disappointment, and anger. But a late-night visit from the police changes everything when Katie learns that Mia has been found dead in Bali. Unwilling to believe the evidence pointing toward suicide, Katie flies around the world following the entries in Mia’s travel journal—searching for truth, understanding, and finally, forgiveness.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Did you believe that Mia committed suicide? Did you change your mind about whether or not she did throughout the course of the story? If so, at which points and why?
2. There’s a fine line between love and hate when it comes to sisters: “Sometimes the line between the two was so fine it was difficult to see which side you were standing on” (p. 303). Discuss this idea in terms of the relationship that Katie and Mia had. Does this apply to anyone in your own life?
3. Noah and Jez provide a different picture of siblings. How does their relationship differ from that of Mia and Katie? Are there any similarities between the two?
4. When Mia found out about Harley, she was worried about being like him—and ending up like him. How much do you think who our parents are determines who we are?
5. Katie and Mia had the same initial reaction that being labeled half sisters “diluted” them. But after some time adjusting to the news, Katie explains to Finn, “Half: it’s just a word, isn’t it? We still grew up together, shared our childhood. Having different fathers makes no difference to me. We’re sisters” (p. 266). Discuss the meaning of the word sister. How does it define Katie and Mia’s relationship? What does it mean to you?
6. What do you make of Ed and Mia’s behavior following their drunken night together? Do you blame one more than the other?
7. What do you think attracts Mia to Noah so much? Are they good for each other? Did they really love each other?
8. Discuss the love triangle between Katie, Finn, and Mia. Who do you think is a better fit for Finn? Do you think a future is possible for Katie and Finn?
9. Katie and Finn both had cruel words for Mia in their last interactions with her and had to cope with feelings of guilt and blame. Do you think discovering the truth about her death helped assuage any of their guilt? Are they able to forgive themselves?
10. Do you think that following Mia’s journey helped Katie discover more about Mia, or about herself? What kind of self-realizations did her travels expose?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Plan your own exotic trip around the world. Print out a world map and mark the spots you would visit with a ’round-the-world ticket.
2. Have you ever kept a journal? Writing your thoughts down can be a completely different experience from just thinking them. Take a journal or notebook and find somewhere peaceful to record your thoughts, anxieties, gratitude—whatever you’re feeling at the moment!
3. Do you have a sister? Or maybe a best friend who feels like a sister? Bring a photo of the two of you to your book club and talk about how the word sister defines your relationship.
4. In her research, Katie learned that nearly one million people attempt suicide every year. Visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) at www.afsp.org for statistics, warning signs, prevention resources, coping methods, and more information.
A Conversation with Lucy Clarke
Where did you get the idea for this book?
The idea that sparked Swimming at Night came from my fascination with travel journals. I love the colorful places where they’ve been written, the pages thick with smears of sunscreen and grains of sand. Whenever I travel, I keep a journal and I’ve often thought how intriguing and tempting it must be to read someone else’s journal. What an insight it would give you into who they are. With this in mind, I asked myself two questions that were the fuel for the story: Who could the travel journal belong to? And who finds it and why? From there, the relationship between sisters Katie and Mia was born.
The book takes place in a number of exotic locations, including Hawaii, Australia, and Bali. Are these places you have travelled to?
Yes, all the settings within the novel are places I’ve visited. My husband and I spend as much of each winter as we can abroad. He is a professional windsurfer, so we are both lucky enough to be able to take our “offices” with us. Over the past few years, our travels have taken us to Chile, Hawaii, Western Australia, Tasmania, Fiji, New Zealand, Canada, the U.S., and Europe.
Which sister would you consider yourself to be more like—Katie or Mia?
That’s an interesting question as the sisters are so different. I remember meeting a publisher when I was in the process of selling the book and when I arrived, they said, “We wondered which sister you’d be.” In truth, I think I’m a bit of both. A piece of me goes into every character I write because I need to be able to understand and empathize with all of them. Mia certainly shares my passion for travel and the sea, so I had a lot of fun writing her and exploring what drives her. But I can also identify with Katie and her need for structure and organization to make sense of the world she lives in.
Mia and Katie have a tumultuous relationship but ultimately share an unbreakable bond. What does the relationship between sisters mean to you?
I have an older brother who I’m close to, but no sisters. I think this is why I’ve always found the bond between sisters so fascinating. When researching and writing the book, I spoke to lots of women about their relationships with their sisters and what struck me was the complexity of their feelings toward one another. There seemed to be degrees of competitiveness, admiration, jealousy, and protectiveness—but what always stood out was the love between the sisters. This became my driving force in drawing Mia and Katie’s relationship. Over the course of the novel I hoped to show that, despite the pain Mia and Katie cause each other, ultimately their love and bond as sisters is what prevails.
The sea is a powerful symbol throughout the book. What drew you toward exploring the sea?
I grew up on the south coast of England, so the sea has always been part of my life. Cities are wonderful and exciting places to be, but after a few days I feel an almost gravitational pull toward the coast. I love everything about the sea—the pure smell of salt air, the mirror calm of a dawn sea, the promise of an empty horizon. My favorite place to write, where I have my clearest thoughts, has always been by the sea.
In the novel, Mia and Katie spend their childhood by the coast, so it forms an integral part of their early memories. But as they grow older, the sea begins to divide them, both geographically and emotionally. It isn’t until Katie begins to understand the reasons behind her fear of the sea that she’s able to find peace in her relationship with Mia.
Finn and Ed are very different, but Katie loves them both at certain points in the novel. Why do you think this is?
Some people have a very clear picture in their mind about the type of person they are going to fall in love with—a sort of checklist of attributes or qualities. Katie is one of these people. On paper, Ed is her ideal man, ticking off all of the boxes: well-educated, handsome, sophisticated, wealthy. Katie falls in love with him at a time when her mother is seriously ill and perhaps, subconsciously, she is craving the security and safety Ed can provide.
But then there’s Finn. He barely meets any of the requirements on Katie’s list, yet she finds a deep connection with him. In Finn’s company, she feels more truly like herself—her best self. And this, ultimately, is what comes to matter to her.
How have you reacted to the immense interest in Swimming at Night from around the world?
It’s been absolutely incredible—and a complete surprise! Like most writers, I’ve accumulated quite the collection of rejection letters and at times it’s been a battle of sheer will to keep believing in myself and my writing. When my previous manuscript was rejected, I asked my agent what I should do. She said, “You take a deep breath and start your next one.” So I did—and wrote Swimming at Night.
What is the structure of your writing day?
I’m a morning person, which means I set my alarm early and go straight to my desk. I’m hopeless by evening—it’s as if my creativity fades with the day. I generally write Monday to Friday, so that I have evenings and weekends free to spend with friends and family. Being a full-time novelist is a luxury I’m still getting used to because, until recently, writing had to be fitted around running a business.
I prefer to write by hand—there’s something about the simplicity of a pencil and a blank page that appeals to the romantic in me. I love to write to music, too. There are certain albums I play to help me step into a character’s mindset, or to inspire a particular atmosphere in a scene. My biggest distraction is sunshine—I struggle to focus if I’m indoors once and the sun is shining, so I often decamp to the beach on my bike and then I’m focused again!
What can you tell us about your second novel, A Single Breath?
I am SO excited about the next book! It’s set in a beautiful, rugged coastal location in the Southern Hemisphere, where I spent part of this winter researching. The story is based around a young woman who has been recently widowed. She travels to meet her late husband’s family but begins to discover that the man she married wasn’t who she thought he was. I can’t say too much more just yet, other than to expect plenty of twists and turns!