DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR BOOK GROUPS
These are some questions about The Book of Fires that book groups might find of interest to pick out for discussion:
1. Jane Borodale sets The Book of Fires in 18th-century England, shifting from rural Sussex to London. How successfully do you think she captures this era? In what ways does she do this?
2. The Book of Fires is a work of historical fiction. What other genres do you think this novel falls under and why?
3. Discuss the symbolism of the Trussel’s pig.
4. Does John Glincy – or any man who forcibly impregnates a woman – have a just claim over the child?
5. Mrs Blight amuses herself by reading and gossiping about the execution of criminals at Tyburn, but she was not alone. Cheering crowds attended most of the hangings, and many more followed the proceedings. What, if anything, has changed in society so that this sort of behaviour is now considered ghoulish and unsavoury?
6. Mary Spurren’s lot was common for a poor city girl living in Agnes’s era – far more common than Agnes’s own. How did your understanding of Mary change throughout the novel?
7. One could easily imagine Agnes’s story being set in the present-day and Agnes being just another teenage runaway/ mother. Do you think circumstances have improved much for girls impregnated with an unwanted child?
8. Do you sympathise with John Blacklock? Do your feelings towards him change as the story progresses? If so, when and why?
9. What do you think The Book of Fires reveals about the perception of women and their role during this period?
10. How significant is the character of Lettice Talbot? What, in your opinion, does she bring to the novel?
11. In chapter nine, Agnes asks Mary Spurren: ‘So Blacklock is a chemist then, or alchemist?’ who answers, ‘Just a maker of fireworks. Pyrotechnist. Never heard of such a thing before I got here.’ What did you know about pyrotechnics before reading The Book of Fires? How has this book shaped your understanding of this particular form of science?
12. The Book of Fires is the title of one of the volumes on John Blacklock’s shelf. What do you think this symbolises and do you think it is a powerful title for this novel?
13. In chapter twenty-seven, Agnes describes London as her home, and then hastily adds, ‘That was a mistake, as I know that home is a long way southwards…’ How important do you think the idea of home is to The Book of Fires? In your view, what are the most significant themes of this book?
14. For John Blacklock, pyrotechny ‘provides exhilaration, a soaring pleasure, during a display. Any pain, debt, guilt, grief, all these troubles, we have momentary respite from. What a gift that is.’ Having read The Book of Fires, how far do you agree with this statement? What do you think, in the twenty-first century, provides us with a similar sense of escapism?