After a year away from working in the field, archaeologist Cormac Maguire and pathologist Nora Gavin are back in the bogs, investigating a ninth-century body found buried in the trunk of a car. They discover that the ancient corpse is not alone—pinned beneath it is the body of Benedict Kavanagh, missing for mere months and familiar to television viewers as a philosopher who enjoyed destroying his opponents in debate. Both men were viciously murdered, but centuries apart—so how did they end up buried together in the bog?
While on the case, Cormac and Nora lodge at Killowen, a nearby artists’ colony, organic farm, and sanctuary for eccentric souls. Digging deeper into the older crime, they become entangled in high-stakes intrigue encompassing Kavanagh’s death while surrounded by suspects in his ghastly murder. It seems that everyone at Killowen has some secret to protect. Set in modern-day Ireland, The Book of Killowen reveals a new twist on the power of language—and on the eternal mysteries of good and evil.
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The Book of Killowen
Domfarcai fidbaidæ fál fomchain lóid luin lúad nad cél.
Huas mo lebrán indlínech fomchain trírech innanén . . .
Fommchain cói menn medair mass himbrot lass de dindgnaib doss
debrath nomchoimmdiu cóima cáinscríbaimm foróda ross.
A hedge of trees surrounds me:
a blackbird’s lay sings to me
praise which I will not hide . . .
Above my manuscript—the lined one—
the trilling of the birds sings to me.
In a gray mantle the cuckoo sings
a beautiful chant to me from the tops of bushes:
may the Lord protect me from Doom!
I write well under the greenwood.
—Verse written in the margin by an Irish scribe who copied Priscian’s Institutiones Grammaticae (a Latin grammar) in the mid-ninth century
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Book of Killowen includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book clubThe 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.
What could possibly explain two dead bodies in the buried trunk of a car—murdered hundreds of years apart? Could the two crimes have anything to do with each other? This is the mystery that brings archaeologist Cormac Maguire and pathologist Nora Gavin back to the bogs of beautiful Tipperary in central Ireland. At Killowen, a local artist retreat where Cormac and Nora are staying, secrets simmer below the surface and it seems everyone’s a suspect. As the evidence unfolds, mysteries of the past become present again, and questions begin to swirl around medieval manuscripts and ancient philosophies of good and evil. Cormac and Nora work with the local detectives in a race to figure out how the past informs the present, and whose secret was worth killing to protect.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The prologue reveals to us what happened to the bog man all those centuries ago, providing information to readers that the modern-day characters are still in search of. How do you think the experience of reading the story would have been different without the prologue?
2. Nora and Cormac are recurring characters in Erin Hart’s books, but the point of view rotates often and there are important characters featured as well. Who did you consider the most central figure? Whose story were you most interested in?
3. On p. 35, Claire reflects on the eight people including herself who have come to live and work at Killowen, thinking of them as "this whole rootless menagerie of misfits who’d arrived on her doorstep like strays, all looking for something." What do you think they were each looking for? Have any of them found it?
4. The Book of Killowen is a bit of a whodunit—so many of the characters have an air of suspicion surrounding them. Who did you think was guilty of the present-day murders? Did you suspect there were multiple killers, or question different people at different points in the story?
5. On p. 99-100, Mairéad says, “It’s always been a mystery to me, how a few words scribbled down a thousand years ago could be so earth-shattering today.” Words are a strong theme in the story. Characters struggle with words, search for words, hold them back, study them, etc. Discuss this theme and how words are significant in the overall plot and to specific characters.
6. Do you think the National Museum is the right place for The Book of Killowen to be kept, or should it stay with the Beglan family?
7. Do you agree with Stella's decision to burn the photos of Claire? Why or why not?
8. Re-read the quotes that open each of the six books within the story. What is their significance? Did they give you any clues to the story, or do they now in retrospect?
9. The peat in the bog has miraculous powers of preservation. While the whole world outside of the bog was changing, the bog man and his possessions were preserved for centuries. Discuss the ways in which preservation is a theme throughout the novel.
10. Killowen is a veritable cauldron of secrets. Nearly all of its occupants have something to hide. Discuss the secrets these people kept and how their lives were affected for better or worse once their secrets finally came out.
11. What do you think of Barry’s change of heart? Should Stella take him back? Why or why not?
12. How do you think Cormac's relationship with his father will change now that he knows about his sister? Why do you think Eliana decided not to tell Cormac on her own?
13. Part of the controversy surrounding The Book of Killowen is the position its writer takes on the existence of evil. Nora then wonders, “If evil doesn’t really exist, does it mean that things like goodness and decency aren’t real either?” (p. 399) What do you think? Does evil exist? Can one exist without the other?
14. There were quite a few twists and turns as the story came to a close—secrets revealed, mysteries solved—what was the most surprising plot point to you? Was there something you never saw coming?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. On p.308-309, Gwynn says, “Imagine stumbling upon a unique collection of words and ideas and images so fantastic that it was worth spending months or even years of your life copying it out so that others would be able to share in and appreciate its splendor.” Try to find a poem or passage that means something to you. Spend some time carefully copying it down into a journal, or perhaps in a letter if there is someone else you’d like to share it with. Consider passing your copied words around at your book club meeting to share their splendor!
2. Lucien and Sylvie were quite the cheese makers. Have a tasting during your discussion, perhaps from a local farm or small cheese shop where you can learn a little bit about the types of cheese you decide to buy.
3. This book is full of authentic Irish sayings. Have you ever heard someone say “half-eight” instead of eight-thirty? Exclaim “Jaysus” instead of Jesus? Were there any other Irish-isms you noticed in the book? Do a quick look online to see what other sayings you can find.