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With an Edwardian twist on The Tempest, and surprising, earthy, and magical qualities, this irresistible novel is set on the remote, divided Scottish island of Kissack and Skilling, one half of which looks historically and geographically towards Catholic Ireland, the other toward the Protestant north and Scandinavia. In the spring of 1903 a ship explodes as it docks on the island, drowning many of the passengers and crew in the icy waters of Stolnsay harbor. Young, strawberry-blonde-haired Billie Paxton is among ...
With an Edwardian twist on The Tempest, and surprising, earthy, and magical qualities, this irresistible novel is set on the remote, divided Scottish island of Kissack and Skilling, one half of which looks historically and geographically towards Catholic Ireland, the other toward the Protestant north and Scandinavia. In the spring of 1903 a ship explodes as it docks on the island, drowning many of the passengers and crew in the icy waters of Stolnsay harbor. Young, strawberry-blonde-haired Billie Paxton is among the only survivors. Clumsy, illiterate, and suddenly alone, Billie will not say why, before the explosion, she jumped from ship to shore, and so falls under the immediate suspicion of her fellow passenger, Murdo Hesketh, and his cousin and employer, Lord Hallowhulme, who owns the island—and has controversial plans for improving the lives of its inhabitants. Gloriously inventive and vividly atmospheric, Billie’s Kiss conjures up a way of life hurtling toward a brave new world in an enchanting novel that brings together murder and eugenics, progress, prejudice, and the loss of innocence.
1. Could the story of Billie and Murdo have happened anytime,
anywhere? What aspects of it depend on the fact
that it is set in the Western Isles of Scotland in 1903?
2. Billie's Kiss begins with the explosion of a ship that might
be an accident, an act of sabotage, or murder.Why do
you think Murdo jumps at the idea of blaming Billie for
the crime? Though we know Billie is innocent, she feels
culpable because the kiss she and her brother-in-law exchanged
seemed to bring on the tragedy, "as if their kiss
was a match to a fuse." Explore the ways in which Murdo
and Billie both carry guilt for the deaths of others: the
two Ingrids, Karl, Ian, and Edith.
3. What feelings did Billie's dyslexia and clumsiness arouse
in you--sympathy, exasperation, admiration, disgust? "She
was born knowing," Murdo says, "in compensation for
her incapacity." Consider the points at which she overcomes
her old habits or reveals new strength. Do other
characters, too, have weaknesses to match their powers?
4. We think of eugenics as a sinister, proto-Nazi idea of
the early twentieth century. But it could be argued that
modern biogenetic research, with its potential to be used
to "weed out" traits that are perceived as undesirable
(from Down's Syndrome to homosexuality, bipolar illness
to breast cancer), amounts to the same thing. What
aspects of the eugenics debate are explored in Billie's Kiss?
Have you read any novels set nowadays that take up this
5. At first, Murdo hounds Billie, determined to prove his
suspect guilty of mass murder. At what point, and how,
does this hounding begin to turn into love? Later in the
book, when Rory is walking along beside Murdo and
planning to kill him, Murdo becomes aware that "Rory
coveted something about him, as Ian had coveted the air
between them." Discuss the idea of hate and desire as two
sides of the same coin.
6. On one level, this is a mystery novel. As you were drawn
into the world of Kissach and Skilling, how preoccupied
did you find yourself with the puzzle of the ship's explosion?
Did you guess the identity of the killer, or even try?
Lord Hallowhulme presents himself as an enlightened,
benevolent, visionary landlord. How does Elizabeth Knox
gradually strip away his masks? Consider how she has intertwined
the characters' emotional journeys with the
story of the crime investigation.
7. At one point Georgie decides "he was going to save
Murdo's miserable life." The novel is full of moments
at which people save each other's lives--or think that is
what they are doing, as when Murdo hauls Billie out of
the sea. "Debts are damnation," says Murdo, with reference
to the money he owes his cousin Lord Hallowhulme.
What does Murdo owe Ian, Geordie, and Clara?
What about Billie--what does she owe her sister, and
Henry? Talk about these different forms of debt and
8. What divides Murdo and Billie, apart from the fifteen
years between them? What qualities do they have in common?
One experience they share is that of bereavement
and lasting sorrow. "This was a sadness that sang along
with hers," Knox writes, "another soul with perfect pitch."
What are the effects of bereavement--both traumatic and
liberating--on Murdo, and on Billie?
9. Dead people (especially Edith and Ian) have a particularly
strong role in this novel. How do they seem changed after
their deaths? In what ways do those who love them come
to reinterpret the stories and characters of the dead?
10. Billie's Kiss turns out to be full of triangles, and some of
them are literally as well as metaphorically incestuous. Consider
the relations between Billie, Edith, and Henry; James,
Clara, and Murdo; Ingrid, Karl, and Murdo; Murdo and
Ingrid Hallow. How does this theme of forbidden desire
between near relations (sister-in-law and brother-in-law,
father and daughter, first cousins) link to the hidden intensity
of gay desire felt by Ian and other men on the island?
11. Though the book is set mostly on an island, the characters
are not confined to one spot; they seem to travel
constantly by boat, horse, train, or foot. They also send
telegrams and read newspapers. How do these technologies
of the early twentieth century offset the less modern,
elemental, even Gothic aspects of the story?
12. "She'd finally found her way through the tricky currents
of their mismatched tides," we are told of Billie and Murdo
near the end of the book. In this novel set on an island,
water is an omnipresent metaphor as well as a literal reality.
Billie loves to swim, and as a child she learns to fake drowning
for money. By contrast, sailors don't learn to swim, as
it only prolongs the agony of drowning in cold seas. Compare
the various scenes of swimming and of drowning in
this novel. Notice how Knox uses the imagery of water,
ice, and polar bears in describing Murdo in particular.
13. Whose story is Billie's Kiss? The sections from Billie's
point of view alternate with those set in Murdo's head,
and also (from the fourth chapter on) with pieces from
Geordie's perspective. What does Geordie add to the
mix? How would the novel be different if it had only one
point-of-view character, or ten?
14. The heroine of this novel has a name that sounds like a
boy's. What playful or ironic associations can be attached
to other names in the book: Murdo? Clara? Hallow? Minnie?
15. All the characters have to puzzle over the details they recall
of the shipwreck, in order to solve the crime. Ironically,
Henry is partially amnesiac after his near-drowning, so for
him, it is as if the fatal kiss never happened. Similarly,
Murdo was too drunk to remember sleeping with Clara
and fathering Ingrid. Geordie struggles to remember what
his dead brother and he were really like, and he relies on
rereading their letters. By contrast, Billie cannot read, but
her powerful memory compensates for it. Why do you
think memory is one of Elizabeth Knox's recurring themes?
16. Billie's Kiss seems to refer to the kiss between her and
Henry that starts the story. By the end, what does the
phrase conjure up for you? What does it mean for Billie
to, as she says, "choose who to kiss"? "I hope you'll never
be civilized," Murdo tells Billie toward the end of the
book. What do you think he means? As a wife, a mother,
and a cinema pianist, has Billie become civilized or not?
17. Do you think historical fiction has to have close contemporary
parallels to be relevant, or is it enough for it to be
about things in the past which still matter?