Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Water Children includes an introduction, discussion questions, and a Q&A with author Anne Berry. The 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.
In Anne Berry’s deeply moving novel The Water Children, the childhood secrets of four individuals unfold in a series of evocative scenes and disturbed memories. For Naomi and Sean, water is a hypnotic, sexual, purifying source, whilst for Owen and Catherine it represents death and danger. When the four characters are brought together in London in the summer of 1976, their lives are irrevocably changed and they are forced to face their turbulent pasts. But will the water children reconcile with the ghosts that haunt them or are their memories too powerful to allow them to move on?
About Anne Berry
Anne Berry was born in London in 1956, moving on to Hong Kong at the age of six, where she was educated. She founded a small drama school, writing and directing more than thirty plays in ten years, and now lives in Surrey with her husband and four children. Her first novel, The Hungry Ghosts, was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What does water represent to each of the main characters? Do their sentiments about water change at the end of the novel?
2. What are the effects of Sarah’s death on Owen and his parents? Does Owen’s relationship with his parents change after Sarah’s death?
3. What are Catherine and Sean’s reasons for marriage? Do you agree with them?
4. Catherine states “I am still trapped in the ice.” Why do you think she says this?
5. Throughout the book Anne Berry personifies the sea. Why do you think she does this? Find examples to discuss.
6. Anne Berry writes “Mara is in control. She is fond of Naomi but she lacks the necessary purpose. She has tried cohabiting, a half-and-half arrangement. But experience has taught her that it doesn’t work. The problem is that Naomi lets The Blind Ones take advantage of her. She doesn’t stand up to them, doesn’t take them on. She wants the ruthless streak. Mara is the ruthless streak. In fact, Naomi owes her everything.” Why is Naomi constantly battling between two personalities? What role does Mara play in the novel? Who are The Blind Ones?
7. What is the significance of the snowman story Owen’s mother tells him?
8. Do any of the characters reconcile with their pasts? How so?
A Conversation with Anne Berry
Water is obviously the key theme in the novel. What made you focus on this? Do your own experiences with water mirror any of the characters’?
Water is the essence of life, but paradoxically it can also be a deadly force. I have had both joyful and terrifying experiences in water. I have fallen through ice and nearly lost my life. And I have been snorkeling in the Seychelles and glimpsed an underwater paradise.
What made you choose the settings in the novel?
My four very different characters are shaped in part by their unique environments, and often their experiences are directed by them as well. The dramatic settings become both stage and backdrop for their interlocking lives.
Do you have a favorite or least favorite character in the novel?
I am half in love with my villains, particularly if they are facing their own demons. So I have compassion for the disturbed, complex Naomi. I also have deep affection for Sean, the dreamer worn down by life. Least favorite, well that would have to be Dinah Hoyle, Catherine’s selfish, self-centered mother.
The chapters are each told from the perspective of different characters so intimately that it feels as if we’re getting first-person narration, but in fact it is all in the third person. Why did you decide to maintain that degree of distance, instead of having the characters speak to the reader directly?
Although all four water children have separate and distinctive childhoods, they all come together in London during the sweltering summer of 1976. Here, their disparate histories are swallowed up in one central gripping narrative. Writing in the third person meant that no voice drowned out another, and that the story itself could not be upstaged by its characters.
Owen and Catherine never discuss the tragedies they have witnessed with their parents. Do you think this approach is distinctly British?
Definitely. The British reserve is a cliché but a true one. Owen and Catherine grow up with the consequences of this, and also of the divide that sometimes exists between adults and their children.
Do you think incidents that happen in our childhood shape who we become?
I do. But I also believe that this may be your tragedy or your good fortune. It is not so much what happened to you in childhood but how you react to it. And herein dwells the mystery. What will destroy one child, will be the making of another.
Why did you decide to include the abuse scenes from Naomi’s past? By giving her an alter ego—Mara—do you want the reader to sympathize with Naomi?
In order for the reader to understand Naomi’s actions, it is essential that they are able to grasp at least something of what she has suffered. Frequently, those who have been victims of abuse describe a fracturing of their personalities, a detachment, that this is almost necessary for their survival. All Naomi’s rage and frustration is suppressed. When she becomes her alter ego, Mara, it is as though she has license to vent this pent-up fury. Condemn what she does, but do not condemn her. This is the brand of sympathy I should like to engender in the reader.
Despite the fact that Catherine had such a negative experience of water as a child she wants to “teach her daughter Bria to love the water, not to be sucked underneath it.” Why do you make this point?
Catherine, like Owen, faces her fears. Both realize they have the potential to destroy them if they remain passive. Water here becomes a metaphor for life. Catherine is determined that her daughter will not be trampled by life, that she will not be led, rather that she will lead.