by Shena Mackay


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The Nautilus, a strange building shaped like the chambered shell of the same name, was built in South London in the early 1930s. Designed on Modernist and Utopian principles, it was a haven for a floating community of cosmopolitan refugees, intellectuals and artists. Now, at the end of the century, only two of the original inhabitants still occupy their chambers — Celeste Zylberstein, joint architect with her late husband of the Nautilus, and Francis Campion, an elderly poet. Gus Crabb, a dealer in bric-à-brac, is the only other resident until, to the Nautilus, like a hermit crab seeking a home, comes Rowena Snow. Of Indian/Scottish parentage, orphaned, without family or friends, Rowena is in search of her own Utopia — or the Heligoland of her childhood imagination.

Heligoland is Shena Mackay at her very best. Rowena, damaged but courageous, is a brilliant creation, and her path to a sort of contentment is both funny and moving. The other characters are at once utterly strange and entirely believable, and Shena Mackay's eye for the oddities of ordinary life is as sharp as ever. Her writing — sentence by sentence — is sublime, surprising, inimitable.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780099273592
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/27/2004
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.12(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Shena Mackay is the author of two novellas, eight previous novels and four collections of short stories, the most recent of which, The Worlds Smallest Unicorn, was published in 1999. Her novel The Orchard on Fire was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996.

Reading Group Guide

1. What do you think the Nautilus represents? Does it signify the characters in any way? How does it compare and contrast with Chestnuts?

2. There are a number of episodes in which the characters come up against today's youth: Rowena being pelted with an egg, Izzie's humiliation on the bus. Do these episodes tell us anything about the outside world and the characters themselves?

3. Rowena has worked as a home help, a cleaner and a nurse. Why do you think she concentrates on a career of caring for others?

4. How does the theme of shells resound throughout the novel and what does it symbolise?

5. How does Rowena finally start to achieve the happiness she has been searching for throughout the novel and what enables her to do this?

6. The novel ends with a feast in which all the characters are reconciled. What do you think about this ending? Is it convincing?

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