"In the spring of 1903, a ship explodes as it docks on a remote Scottish island, drowning many of the passengers and crew in the icy waters of the harbor. Young, pink-haired Billie Paxton is among the only survivors. Clumsy, illiterate, and suddenly alone, she will not say why, moments before the explosion, she leapt from ship to shore - and so she falls under the immediate suspicion of her fellow passenger, Murdo Hesketh, who is determined to discover the truth behind the ship's fate." As she attempts to come to terms with an uncertain future,
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Billie's Kiss

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"In the spring of 1903, a ship explodes as it docks on a remote Scottish island, drowning many of the passengers and crew in the icy waters of the harbor. Young, pink-haired Billie Paxton is among the only survivors. Clumsy, illiterate, and suddenly alone, she will not say why, moments before the explosion, she leapt from ship to shore - and so she falls under the immediate suspicion of her fellow passenger, Murdo Hesketh, who is determined to discover the truth behind the ship's fate." As she attempts to come to terms with an uncertain future, Billie acquaints herself with the eccentric inhabitants of Kiss Castle: the enigmatic Lord Hallowhulme, who owns the island; his beautiful wife and worldly children; Geordie Betler, a spinsterish gentleman's gentleman; and the fierce, fair-haired Murdo Hesketh, who inspires in Billie equal amounts of rage and passion.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
New Zealander Knox (The Vintner's Luck; Black Oxen) cleverly explores the many meanings of the word "kiss" in this haunting romantic mystery set in 1903. Billie Paxton, an uneducated but perspicacious young woman, thinks the worst is over after a rough voyage on the Gustav Edda, a Swedish steamer that has taken her to the outer Scottish island of Kissack and Skilling, along with her pregnant sister, Edith, and her brother-in-law, Henry Maslen, a tutor who has accepted a position with the local squire, Lord Hallowhulme, at Kiss Castle. But just as the Gustav Edda is docking in port, an explosion shatters the hull, leaving Edith dead and Henry injured. An excellent swimmer, Billie immediately jumps off the stricken ship and scrambles to shore, witnessed by Lord Hallowhulme's cousin, Murdo Hesketh. One of the few other passengers to survive the catastrophe, Murdo wonders how Billie came to be so ready to leap off the doomed boat. On Kissack and Skilling, the intricately interwoven lives of a host of islanders, particularly the inhabitants of Kiss Castle, give Billie plenty to ponder. Meanwhile, Murdo pursues Billie as both suspect and object of desire. When Murdo claims it was "just a kiss" after finally succeeding in kissing the breathless Billie, it turns out to be much more than that. The novel's promotion invokes the names of Emily Bront and Jane Austen; aficionados of those classic authors shouldn't get their hopes too high, but many romance fiction fans should be well satisfied. (Mar. 1) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
New Zealander Knox, an energetic magical-realist with a vibrant comic imagination, scores strongly again with this densely plotted tale of a waiflike shipwreck survivor's bizarre life and loves. In 1903, the Gustav Edda, en route to the twin Scottish islands of Kissack and Skilling, unaccountably "explodes" upon reaching port, killing most of its crew and passengers. An exception is 20-year-old Wilhelmina "Billie" Paxton, who had jumped into the water seconds before the catastrophe. The reader knows why, but fellow survivor Murdo Hesketh does not-and he soon undertakes to discover why Billie had committed "sabotage." The progress of this central plot strand is interrupted, and complicated, by the parallel "investigation" performed by a butler named (Geordie) Betler, who travels to the islands' primary settlement, Stolsnay, to learn about the disaster that had claimed the life of his younger brother. As Knox subtly reveals the connections among Billie's inchoate maturity (she's mildly retarded: a kind of Dostoevskyan "innocent"), savant-like musical gift, and constantly changing relationship with the driven Murdo, she also layers in increasingly crucial information about the ambitious plans contrived by Murdo's wealthy cousin Lord Hallowhulme (the de facto "lord" of this kingdom), a murder buried in Stolsnay's past, Sir Francis Galton's theory of eugenics and the minutiae of "pisciculture," and the plays of George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare. This arguably overcrowded melodrama (which echoes the replete symbolic novels of both Patrick White and John Cowper Powys) alternately frustrates and fascinates, but Knox somehow pulls most of its unruly parts together, rewarding the bedazzled readerwith a stunning climactic confrontation between Murdo and the Prospero-like Lord Hallowhulme, and a deus ex machina topper that the late Richard Condon might have concocted. Knox's wild and wooly fictions (Black Oxen, 2001, etc.) aren't for everybody, but if minimalism doesn't satisfy your appetite for narrative, she may just be the writer for you.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780864737274
  • Publisher: Victoria University Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 319
  • File size: 604 KB

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Knox is the author of The Vintner’s Luck and Black Oxen. She lives with her family in Wellington, New Zealand.
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Read an Excerpt

The Gustav Edda

The crossing was rough, and Edith unwell. Billie couldn’t read, so she sang to her sister. Edith kept her eyes closed and her face turned into the pillow. Billie saw sweat beaded beneath the reddish down on her sister’s cheek, the down that had grown gradually darker, from cheekbone to jawline, as Edith came nearer her time. It seemed to Billie that her sister was turning into another kind of creature, with furred skin and an extra layer of soft fat on her arms, her midriff firmly tight, not laced and nipped, as it had been, but convex. Even Edith’s hair had changed, now so luxuriant that her unpinned plaits were as thick as Billie’s forearms. But these changes weren’t Edith’s whole alteration, and as Billie sang to her sister she kept her right hand against Edith’s belly, between belly and supporting pillow, to feel the other thing, the motion, strong and irregular, and as invisible as the ocean.

The flame was fairly steady in the binnacle lamp on the ceiling of the cabin, for the lamp itself rocked on its gimbals, moved in counterpoint to the heaving ship. All the room’s shadows tilted this way and that, as, no doubt, any person on deck at that time would have done.

Beneath Billie’s hand and her sister’s skin the baby seethed. Billie paused between verses to whisper to herself: “Let the cat out of the bag.” It was an expression she’d always liked. Of course they weren’t fully ready for the baby—they: Edith, Henry, Billie—and cats out of bags meant trouble. But, as a child, whenever her father had turned to her, his index finger barring his mouthbefore he whispered, “Don’t let the cat out of the bag,” Billie would imagine the cat—the abducted feline—on the sill of an open window, fur upstanding, haloed in darkness, framed against a garden, and looking back with eyes like embers.

Edith squeezed Billie’s arm and gasped. “Why did we have to go on today?”

Edith had been content to travel by train, but balked at the idea of a sea voyage. So her husband, Henry Maslen, planned a journey that used the Inner Isles as stepping-stones, and ferries that crossed at all the narrowest places. In Henry’s plan they were to cross from Dorve, in the Inner Isles, on a steamer small enough to navigate the crooked way among the reefs that lay between Dorve and Southport, on the southeast coast of an island called Kissack and Skilling. Dorve to Southport was a short, fair-weather journey. From Southport it was only a day’s travel north to their ultimate destination, Stolnsay, Kissack and Skilling’s only sizable town. But when Edith and Henry Maslen, and Edith’s sister Billie, arrived in Dorve, it was to a harbor whipped up by wind and a reef not to be chanced. Not for several days, they were told. It was suggested that, if Mr. Maslen liked, he could take his family overland to the port of Luag, where they would coincide with the arrival of the Gustav Edda. The Gustav Edda was a big, Swedish-owned steamer that passed through the islands every month on a circuit that began and ended in Stockholm. Henry Maslen had hesitated before rushing off to catch the bigger ship. He hesitated and his sister-in-law watched him hide his worry and his calculations, watched his lips move against the heel of the hand with which he screened his mouth. Then Henry dropped his hand. He looked at his sister-in-law. “Billie, you and Edith could keep our room here and follow me when the weather’s calmer. But . . .”

But they were short of funds, and he wanted to have his wife settled before the baby came. Its arrival was imminent. Henry’s new employment had come at exactly the right time, but the journey hadn’t. Mr. Johan Gutthorm, who, in his own words, handled Lord Hallowhulme’s “indoor business affairs,” advised Henry to come before summer. Since Mr. Maslen meant to bring his wife and her sister it was, Gutthorm wrote, “better by far to make the most of the best of our weather.” Henry had read Johan Gutthorm’s letter to Billie and Edith as they sat in the tiny parlor of their cottage in Crickhowell. Edith said, “We should all go at once. We’re very crowded here.”

They were—spring damp breaking in on them, making black stars of mildew on the paintwork around the windows—crowded out by Edith’s belly, Henry’s books, and Billie’s upright piano, and by a tortuous cyclonic current of feeling that could neither be borne nor gone with. That afternoon in Crickhowell, Henry had agreed with his wife. He repeated his salary offer, pounds and shillings, but warned that there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t find themselves again crowded at Kiss Castle in Stolnsay. Henry looked at her then—Billie—but his eyes said: “Edith.” He could say her sister’s name without moving his lips. Henry appeared sad. The flaring ends of his fair muttonchop whiskers—minus moustache—were shaved to terminate exactly parallel to the lines beside his mouth: two defined lines that always made his face seem sober, his mouth bracketed, braced, and disciplined. What had he been looking for in looking at her, Billie wondered, encouragement or warning?

The ship pitched and tossed, and Billie sang to her sister: hymns, love ballads, a comic song from the music hall. The ship yawed and the swinging light chased the shadows into a corner of Edith’s bunk, where they concentrated into such thickness Billie expected to see them coalesce, leaving something solid sitting there.

Edith rolled over, showed a whole perspiring face, and asked, “Why do you say that? ‘Cat out of the bag’?”

“I was thinking of the baby.” Billie stroked her sister’s abdomen.

“Honestly, Billie. Why would a baby bring to mind a cat in a bag? People put cats in bags only to drown them.” Edith’s lower lip trembled, then she said she was sorry, she hadn’t meant to be sharp. Could Billie go up on deck and see how near they were to that headland the captain had explained would afford some shelter from the north? The ship surely couldn’t still be out on the open water. “And send Henry down,” Edith said. “And take the bucket out and empty it. Please, dear.”

Billie got up. She said that she’d heard that the saying was nautical, or naval anyway, the “cat” was a lash. Then she had to swing the zinc pail back at her sister’s urgent signal. Edith’s mouth filled, and she leaned over and spat out another gob of ropey bile. The wet rag with which Billie had been wiping her sister’s face was already in the bucket, so Billie turned up her dress hem and found the scalloped cotton edge of her petticoat. She wiped Edith’s mouth. “I don’t like to leave you.”

Edith said, weakly, that Billie could give her some hope. “See where we are,” she said again. “But leave Henry up in the fresh air if he’s ill.”

Billie wrapped her shawl around her head and carried the pail from the cabin. She crept along the passage, her free hand braced against the wall. By the hatch an oblong light skated about, probing the darkness, sliced by the rungs of the ladder, whose own shadow surged so wildly that it seemed dangerous to climb. Billie went up, one rung at a time. She didn’t dare put the pail down above her.

The sea was higher than it had been, and its waves were streaky, but the wind was now only stiff. Last night’s gale had passed. Billie steadied herself, took hold of a shroud. The hemp thrummed in her palm as the wind drew its long, smooth bow across the few ropes and cables on the steamer. It made a mournful sound, and seemed to be missing something. The wind shoved the stack smoke down, so that several hot smuts hit Billie’s cheeks—like snow in Hell. Billie thought of another phrase and imagined the coalesced shadow from the corner of Edith’s bunk, a black cat, step out of its jute bag and onto the black ice of a Hell frozen over. Billie shook her head.

Henry was at the rail, his back to a group of well-dressed gentlemen—two youths and two men. One of the men was just putting his pipe back in his pocket with the air of one who has tried and failed at something—igniting it, probably. The boys were in the uniform of a military academy, their greatcoats gray and piped with black, the facings of their collars crimson. They wore their scarves high, halving their faces, and their caps pulled low. The second man wore a long astrakhan coat, its blurrily black sable collar turned up around his ears. He held the collar in place with one black-gloved hand. His head was bare, and his thick, phosphorescently pale hair blew forward.

Billie passed the huddled group, nodded to them, cordial. She didn’t catch any eyes. She felt a little self-conscious seeing them so uncomfortable, for this party had formerly occupied the cabin in which Edith was now lying.

It was the first of June, and in summer the journey from Luag to Stolnsay took around ten hours and was undertaken from midnight till morning. The Gustav Edda had come on from bigger mainland ports, and there were no cabins empty for its outermost journey. When Henry and his hugely pregnant wife had presented themselves unexpectedly at the quay at Luag the captain of the steamer had Henry write several letters petitioning “the gentlemen” who had the ship’s four cabins. Three were friends, with a cabin each, and the captain imagined they might be content to bunk together.

Yet it was the letter carried to a hotel adjacent the harbor that was the only one answered. “Dear Sir,” Henry read. “My party is happy to oblige yours. I wish you, and your wife, as comfortable a crossing as can be hoped for in a northerly gale in the bight. Yours etc. MH.” “Mr. Hesketh,” the captain said. “A cousin of Lord Hallowhulme. Hesketh was an officer in King Oskar’s household cavalry. Now he sees things done for Lord Hallowhulme. There’s no love lost between Hesketh and the islanders. Lord Hallowhulme is full of plans, and they say he’s a good-natured fellow, that his heart’s in the right place, but his cousin is the one who keeps the plans in motion whenever they stick.”

Now, although they were on deck together, Henry had his back to the obliging Mr. Hesketh and party. Henry was stooped over the rail, but when Billie stopped beside him she saw he wasn’t unwell, but was hiding, shy.

Copyright 2002 by Elizabeth Knox
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Interviews & Essays

Emma Donoghue is an Irish novelist who lives in Canada. Her
historical fiction includes Slammerkin and The Woman Who
Gave Birth to Rabbits.
Emma Donoghue: What was the initial inspiration for
Billie's Kiss?
Elizabeth Knox: For some years I'd been thinking about an
idea for a novel in which the hero believes the heroine is
guilty of an act of sabotage that results in the loss of a number
of lives. It was what I'd call the "starter motor" of a book,
the little engine that makes the big engine of story turn over
and go.
My initial idea had the novel taking place in the mid-
nineteenth century, in a small principality, on the banks of a
great European river. But I wasn't sufficiently excited by this
setting. In autumn 1999, I went to stay in the Western Highlands,
with my friend, who was the "Loch Keeper" (like a
gamekeeper) at a private loch. He and his wife told me about
the first Lord Leverhulme, a man who, in the early twentieth
century, had bought the island of Lewis and Harris, and had
set about improving the lives of its inhabitants. I was fascinated
by this history. I visited Lewis and Harris and was in-spired
by the landscape. Actually, "inspired" is a rather weak
word for my reaction to the landscape. I come from a forested
country, and the bogs and mountains of Lewis and Harris
are stark and bare. I was astonished and rather frightened
by the landscape. I wanted to see how people, to whom the
land was as foreign as it was to me, would do there. How
they'd feel.
ED: To set a book on an island is a great device for
bringing the characters close together in a smallworld.
What basis in reality has the book's setting of Kissack
and Skilling (off the west coast of Scotland)--an island
of two halves, two religions, and several languages?
EK: The relationship that the historical Lord Leverhulme had
with the island of Lewis and Harris was, by and large, benign.
I wanted the industrialist owner of my islands to be a little more
ambivalent. As part of my research I found out about a biography
of Leverhulme, but I couldn't get hold of a copy, and
since I'd decided to produce a rather different sort of social-experimenting
philanthropist, I passed on further research and
relied on invention. However, I had inherited a background
to my invention. The city in which I live, Wellington, was
founded as "the Wakefield experiment"--a model city, funded
by subscription, in 1840. So, while Kissack and Skilling are
more like Lewis and Harris than like any other real place, they
are not Lewis and Harris. The islands Kissack and Skilling,
like Lewis and Harris, are divided by geography as well as
religion. I emphasized the contrast between the Catholics of
Skilling--in the novel represented by Alan Skilling and his father
Rory--and Kissack's Scot's Reform Church, with a dash
of Lutheranism, mainly to make Alan and Rory outsiders
among the Gaelic speakers. The novel's main characters, all
visitors to Kissack and Skilling, tend to think of Alan and
Rory as being "of the Island," but, in fact, all the book's
named characters are outsiders, people who have imported
their dreams and aspirations and ghosts and problems. I
wanted to people the book with nonindigenous characters
partly because I was interested in showing an affirmative immigrant
story--for instance, Henry and Billie are able to leave
behind them some of the limitations imposed by class and
culture. But then there is Lord Hallowhulme, who has the at-
titudes of nineteenth-century colonizers, but also provides a
little glimpse of why the twentieth century turned out the
way it did--for Hallowhulme is a person who works with terrible,
pious energy to make the world be the way he thinks it
should be, regardless of the interests of others.
ED: How much research does a novel set a hundred
years ago require?
EK: I did quite a bit of research--but only used some of it.
And I have to say, it is very, very difficult to research how to
build a primitive time bomb! My technical-minded brother-in-
law put me on the right track--and I checked it all with
someone at a museum of technology.
ED:Your heroine, Billie, has dyslexia ("congenital word
blindness," as someone calls it in the novel) and various
communication and coordination problems. Did
you write her this way as a focus for one of the novel's
themes that will have resonance for contemporary
readers--genetic research?
EK: Billie has burdens, so she is less encumbered by ordinary
expectations. Nothing much is expected of her--which gives
her a lot of freedom. Early twentieth-century eugenics ideas
were instrumental in the horrific events of the mid-twentieth
century. Arguments about nature and nurture are still raging
today. Lord Hallowhulme's ideas are clearly repugnant and
reductive--and his certainty about his ideas is even more so.
However, the novel is a little mischievous about Hallowhulme.
His monologuing, his obsessiveness about his hobbies,
his shifty gaze, his blindness to the reality and inner lives of
other people--well, I'll just say that it's possible to diagnose
Lord Hallowhulme. His ideas are cultural, but his thinking is
ED: In Billie's Kiss, two pregnant women, the sisters of
the hero and heroine, meet horrible deaths (one by
drowning) while in childbirth. Are you gesturing to a
strong association between pregnancy and death, in an
era of high maternal mortality rates?
EK: Yes, I was born by an emergency caesarian, which, in
earlier times, my mother and I wouldn't have survived. And
my son was born by an emergency caesarian--ditto. I was
thinking about it.
ED: The inhabitants of the wonderfully named Kiss
Castle stage a private production of a play the Laird's
daughter Minnie attributes to George Bernard Shaw,
called Fortune and the Four Winds. What's going on here?
And are you suggesting that on some level, aristocracy
is play-acting?
EK: Minnie passes her own work off as Shaw's in order to
write a play containing a portrait in negative of her father.
(Her character, Mr. Goodwin, believes that parents shouldn't
raise their own children because they pass on bad habits. He
says "Family culture is private doom"--because Minnie's father
thinks people are blessed or damned by their genetic
Lord Hallowhulme is definitely "playing" with his island.
More "playing" than "acting." He isn't interested in appearances,
in appearing "aristocratic," so much as in reshaping the
world into a place in which he--odd, cold creature--will feel
comfortable, not baffled and monstrous.
ED:With its large cast of characters who have complex
and obscure motives, Billie's Kiss is by no means an
easy read.
EK: I was aware that I was trying to do a rather difficult thing:
write a novel that was a romance, and took being romantic seriously;
a novel containing a formal mystery, a crime, investigation,
and solution; and a novel that is a work of literary
fiction about how to live, how to be a decent human being,
and how to live with our dead.
ED:The novel has a gritty, sometimes startling realism,
but it can also be read as a classic romance of accidental
meeting, hostile misunderstanding, and a long,
prickly period of mutual discovery.
EK: What I wanted to do was to write a romance--a story of
gradual, unwilling enchantment, between two people who are
extremely well suited to each other, but not equipped to know
it. Billie is used to following her sister in everything, so can
only fall for her sister's husband Henry. She can't see Murdo as
a mate till she's differentiated herself first from Edith, then
from the dead Edith, whom she wants to follow, in a way, and
can't. Murdo is so disgusted with himself, and with life in
general, that he can't think of wanting anything much. They
take each other by surprise. So, you see, I wanted to imagine
two very real, forceful people, and let them find each other.
It wasn't my intention to push against the constraints of the
I only intended to write an honest romance.
ED:The book is also a very satisfying mystery, of course;
by the last page not only the cause of the ship's explosion
but several other profound family secrets have been
revealed. But in its pacing, Billie's Kiss seems to resist taking
on the page-turning momentum of simpler crime
EK: I loved writing a book that had, as part of its architecture,
the formal structure of a mystery--crime, investigation,
clues, red herrings (one a red-haired herring fisherman), and
a solution. But I didn't want the plot, the formal mystery, to
entirely run the book. I wanted the novel to do other things
as well.
As for the pacing, a friend of mine called Billie's Kiss a
mix of Robert Louis Stevenson and Ingmar Bergman. I think
that's pretty astute. The book has bursts of action and drama,
but also has its lyrical and reflective moments.
ED: Billie's Kiss has been compared to the work of two
very different nineteenth-century English writers: Emily
Bronte and Jane Austen. Did other novels help you write
this one? Were any of its antecedents from New Zealand,
where you live? Billie may remind some readers
of the mute, awkward heroine of Jane Campion's film
The Piano.
EK: When I was writing it I was thinking of three books:
Wuthering Heights, Mansfield Park, and Kidnapped. I wanted torment,
then a social comedy in a country house, then a danger-filled
chase across moors. I wanted echoes and suggestions, as
an homage to books I'd loved. I didn't much care if readers
noticed my echoes--but was quite pleased about the Bronte
and Austen comparisons.
Yeah, I hadn't thought of The Piano--but there's definitely
something "New Zealandy" (as Patrick White would
say) going on. I think it might take a non-New Zealander to
define it though.
ED: One great strength of the book is the subtlety of
the relations between its characters. I'm thinking of
the delicacy with which you explore class as a "confidence
trick," to use a phrase of Billie's, and also the
wide spectrum of homoeroticism in an era that pre-
ferred not to mention such things, for instance when
the Vauses fire Billie from her job as Olive's maid, or in
the web of male friendship around Murdo.
EK: Thanks! I'm particularly proud of that. Olive is feeling
a mixture of envy and attraction that she can't express positively
because of her class, the times, and so forth. As for
Murdo, yes, it isn't that he's "saved by the love of a good
woman"--the whole summer saves him. He interprets his
grief over his dead servant Ian as a desire to avenge Ian--but
has still to think about what he's lost. Murdo has to share
his loss with Ian's brother Geordie, and accept Geordie as an
ally in his search for justice and revenge. Alliance becomes
sympathy, appreciation, and liking--then, before he knows
it, he's back in the world of people, and able to risk loving
ED: In the last chapter, why do you move quickly over
more than a decade to reach World War One?
EK: Part of what I was doing, by ending with the war, was
to show the possible trajectory of even the really benign
industrialist--Andrew Tannoy--who has imagined his heavy
machinery building roads and dams, and sees it turned into
tanks in war.
Also I wanted to give another alternative to Murdo's rather
haphazard mercy (he lets James Hallowhulme get away with
things not because he's promised James's wife Clara, but because
he thinks that his honor won't be tested, that he'll have
to explain Rory's death, and it'll all come out). Alan covers for
Murdo, who he knows has something to do with his father's
death, because Alan loves Billie. He lets go. Murdo, and James
Hallowhulme would never do that--would never say, "I won't
judge" and lift their hands. I wanted to show that kind of moral
ED: How do you respond to "historical fiction" as a
genre label?
EK: I think genre labels are a marketing invention, and that
"literary fiction" is also a genre, and that literature--the real
thing--can appear in any "genre."
ED: In Billie's Kiss, the visceral realism of certain scenes
(the viewing of the drowned, the artificial insemination
of fish, the clambering past Rory's body in the tower)
may shock readers who are used to a more soothing
representation of the past.
EK: Yes, I'm infatuated with the world. I'm not trying to
shock my readers--only casting Yeats's "cold eye" and seeing
what I fish up. And, for every shocking, visceral scene in Billie's
Kiss, there're several sensuous, exultant scenes. Like Billie's
swimming. The sea that makes a monster of the drowned
Edith, makes a spirit of the living Billie.
ED: Are there certain common myths about the early
twentieth century that you're out to demolish in this
EK: I am aware of the myths--and I tend to treat myths not as
things to demolish but things to go around. The image of the
pilgrim's way in Billie's Kiss--a way through the world that
isn't the world's way--is terrifically important to me. The obstacles
produce a path where the traveller has to measure the
ground, where settlements are a day's walk apart, where the
human body is visible in the way the land is shaped. I'm not,
temperamentally, a renewer or improver--I'm a pilgrim,
rather than an evangelist.
ED: Billie's Kiss is your sixth novel. How does it relate
to the others?
EK: Three of them are autobiographical novellas. My third
novel, Glamour and the Sea, has my father in it as a main
character--my father as a twenty-year-old merchant seaman
in 1947. All my novels are superficially different, set in different
eras and places. Some are fantasy, or supernatural, or magic
realist (depending on your favored marketing description).
But they are all of a piece--novels that explore ideas about
identity, memory, destiny and fate, what it is to be human,
how we should behave, how we can live with our dead, remember,
commemorate, embody them. . . .
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Reading Group Guide

It begins with a kiss. And a leap across cold, dark waters.

In the spring of 1903, the sheltered Billie Paxton, her older sister, and brother-in-law are sailing to their new home on a remote Scottish island. But just as the ship draws into port, there is an explosion. Many of the passengers and crew drown in the icy waters of the harbor. Young, pink-haired Billie is among the few survivors–clumsy, illiterate, and suddenly alone.

Brooding and resolute, Billie’s fellow passenger Murdo Hesketh has been robbed of many people he loved in life–and the ship’s explosion takes one more. He is determined to see the guilty parties brought to justice. Billie falls under immediate suspicion, by refusing to explain why, moments before the explosion, she leapt from ship to shore.

As she attempts to come to terms with an uncertain future, Billie acquaints herself with the eccentric inhabitants of Kiss Castle: the enigmatic Lord Hallowhume, who owns the island; his beautiful wife and worldly children; Geordie Betler, a spinsterish gentleman’s gentlemen; and the fierce, fair-haired Murdo Hesketh, who inspires in Billie equal amounts of rage and passion.

Beautifully written–and reminiscent of the work of Emily Brontë and Jane Austen–Billie’s Kiss is a darkly romantic tale of love and loss, mystery and tragedy.

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?
Kiss Castle?

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?

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