This reading group guide for Past the Shallows includes discussion questions your book club. 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.
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Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Aunty Jean is the only female role model the boys have left. She is at times cruel and then caring toward them. Do you consider her a good person? Do you have any sympathy for her? What references within the text have led you to this opinion?
2. Do you think George Fuller sees Harry as just another puppy to rescue? Or does he genuinely care for Harry? There are a few other works of literature that use an ostracized figure in the community to enhance our understanding of the main characters. Why do you think this can be a useful plot device, and do you think it’s effective here?
3. This is a small community where everyone knows who everyone is, as we can see from Mr. Roberts, George and Mrs. Martin in the store. In light of this, why do you think the boys’ home life is allowed to continue? What is the role of men in this community?
4. There are few female figures in Harry’s and Miles’s lives. Is there any evidence of what they think about women?
5. What would be some of the challenges of living here?
6. How challenging would it be to be a woman in this community?
7. Jeff exhibits increasingly dangerous and bullying behavior: the staring, shooting the shark and risking hitting Miles, forcing Harry to drink. Does he bring about Dad’s worst behavior to his sons? Or do you think Dad allows Jeff free rein to reveal his ugly nature? Do you have any sympathy for Dad? What is the evidence within the text that formed your opinion?
8. “Harry stood there looking at the tooth in his hands, and he looked so young and small, like no time had ever passed by since he was the baby in the room and Joe had told Miles to be nice to him and help Mum out. And Miles had thought he wouldn’t like it. But Harry had a way about him. A way that made you promise to take care of him.” (page 187)
Both Joe and Miles are forced to take on responsibility for their brothers, yet they do it quite differently. Joe moved out with Granddad and left the other two behind with their dad when he was thirteen and then ultimately leaves the two of them supposedly forever. Miles, however, stays on even after he is beaten by his father. Why do you think they approach the responsibility so differently?
9. Miles and Harry share an unbreakable bond. Discuss their different reactions to Joe leaving.
10. Joe is also part of this family unit. Why do you think he is painted as one of the family, but also an outsider? He used to work on the boat, now doesn’t. He moved to live with his grandfather. Why do you think Favel Parrett chose not to include point of view from Joe? What effect does this have on the novel? What do you imagine his story would have been?
11. The water throughout the novel is a metaphor for Dad. Do you agree or not, and what from the text made you think this way? Harry fears the water and Miles both loves and hates it. Is there anything within the book that shows us how this relates to the boys’ relationship with Dad?
12. “There was something coming.
“Miles had felt it in the water. Seen it. Swell coming in steady, the wind right on it, pushing. It was ground swell. Brand new and full of punch—days away from its peak.” (page 175)
How does the Tasmanian landscape speak for the characters’ emotions within the text? Are there other references to nature within the book that you found moving? Discuss.
13. Discuss the significance of the shark tooth necklace.
14. Memory plays a big part in this novel. Discuss the way in which memories are invoked in Past the Shallows
and what part they play in the story.
15. The gradual piecing together of Miles’s memories about his mother and the night of the accident have a sense of fantasy or dreamlike state about them. Do you think these events happened chronologically? What makes you think that? Did they reveal events the way you’d imagined? What other possibilities had you anticipated?
16. Why do you think Joe wasn’t in the car?
17. Do you think Harry isn’t Dad’s son, and Miles and Joe are? Is it clear-cut? What references within the text have given you that impression?
18. It’s obviously a point of rage for Dad. Do you have any sympathy for him? How did you feel when you learned through Joe that he’d disappeared and that there would be no direct confrontation or punishment for his acts? Was this a satisfactory ending for you? Why/why not?
19. “Harry’s feet hardly seemed to touch the ground as he followed Jake, and it was easy to run. He ran through the trees, reached out, and he could almost touch Jake’s red fur. George was up ahead. George, waving from the top of the hill.
“And when Harry got there, he could see it all.
“The land just as it had been forever—untouched.” (page 211)
Do you believe this is a utopian afterlife image from Harry after death? Or do you think this is a fragment of unconscious dreaming from Miles? How did you reach this conclusion? Are there any other references within the text that have influenced this idea?
20. Harry and Miles’s story is bookended by the evocative passage: “Out past the shallows, past the sandybottomed bays, comes the dark water—black and cold and roaring. Rolling out the invisible paths . . .” What effect did the imagery and repetition have on you going into the beginning of the story? And on leaving the story?
21. Although very evocative of the Tasmanian coast, do you think that the story transcends borders, and would be just as thought-provoking to a reader in another country?