READERS GUIDEThe discussion questions and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Who Killed Piet Barol?, the epic new novel by Richard Mason.
IntroductionThis “gorgeous treat of a novel” (The Times, Book of the Month) is a funny, sexy, irreverent, and intensely moving portrait of what unites human beings when their sacred mysteries are blown apart. Avoiding the trauma of the First World War, Piet Barol heads into Africa’s greatest forest. With a business to build and secrets to escape, he’s running out of time to make his own luck. His African guides have reasons of their own for taking him to their ancestral lands – where he finds a prize beyond his wildest imaginings.
To get it, he must use every weapon at his disposal. As the story moves to its devastating conclusion, every character becomes a suspect, and Piet’s gamble sets him on a collision course with forces he cannot control. An exquisite, deeply human tale of temptation and theft, set against the extraordinary backdrop of history in the making, Who Killed Piet Barol? affirms Richard Mason’s place among the great writers of our time.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Why do Piet and Stacy Barol tell others that they are the Vicomte and Vicomtesse Pierre de Barol of France, and how are they treated as a result of this lie? What does this reveal about the role of social class in the world they inhabit? Do they ever regret creating their false identities? Why or why not? What does Piet realize that he lacks as a result of this deceit? Does the lie seem to have any major effect on the relationship between Piet and Stacy?
2. Evaluate the setting and historical context of the novel. Why are people like Piet and Stacy and the Shabrills in South Africa? How do they benefit from residing there? What is their relationship to the native inhabitants of South Africa? Explore how the book’s treatment of colonialism creates an expanding dialogue around issues of class, race, self-interest, and human rights.
3. What is the Natives Land Act and who is affected by it? What does Luvo hope to do in response to this? Does Piet support him in his mission? Is Luvo ultimately successful? Why or why not?
4. Consider the motif of apology in the novel. What examples of apologies are found in the book? What are the characters sorry for and what leads them to feel this way? For example, do they seem to be motivated primarily by guilt, regret, empathy, love, understanding, or self-interest? Are those who apologize forgiven? How does the act of apologizing or not apologizing affect the relationships between characters? What message does the book ultimately seem to deliver about apology and forgiveness?
5. Why do you think that the author chose to employ elements of magical realism such as talking animals and sentient plants? What does the author reveal about nature—and about humankind—through his use of this device? How might your own interpretation of the characters and events of the story be different if these elements were omitted?
6. Consider the depiction of women in the novel. What experiences do the female characters share and what common obstacles do they face? How are these women characterized? What words would you use to describe them? How are the female characters treated by the male characters around them? In addition to depicting them as bride, mother, and sexual object, how does the novel create a dialogue around the other roles of women and their value and power?
7. Evaluate the themes of belief and superstition. What are some of the major beliefs that the different characters hold? Does the book indicate how they came to hold these beliefs? Do the characters’ beliefs seem to change over the course of the story or remain steadfast? If they change, what seems to cause this deviation? Does the book ultimately answer the question of what separates belief and superstition?
8. In Chapter 7, what do we learn is “the gift of every ape” (166)? Does the rest of the book seem to support this statement or to contradict it? Explain.
9. How do Bela’s family and friends respond to her rape by her husband’s father on her wedding night? How is her rapist Sukude treated? How does Sukude attempt to justify his actions? Who does he blame for what has happened? What ultimately becomes of Sukude? Does the book suggest that there is or isn’t an inherent force of justice in the world?
10. Explore the motif of dishonesty in the novel. In addition to the lies that Stacy and Piet tell about their identity, what other lies do the characters tell and what causes them to be dishonest? What effect do these lies seem to have on the characters who tell them and on those around them? In what way are the various characters dishonest with themselves? What message or messages does the book ultimately convey about dishonesty and truth?
11. Although Piet tells his son stories about the forest, Arthur is still scared because of what he had learned from European fairy tales. Likewise, many of Ntsina’s relatives and neighbors experience fear as a result of stories they are told. What does the book seem to suggest about storytelling and the responsibility of the storyteller?
12. Many of the characters in the book steal from one another or otherwise consider stealing. What do the characters steal and what motivates them to do so? Do the thieves feel guilty for stealing or are they able to justify their actions? Of those who refrain, what stops them from committing their crime? What does a consideration of this motif reveal about the individual characters and the society they inhabit, and about human nature?
13. How does Dorothy Shabrill react when her husband tells her that he fears that Piet has run off with their money? How does Stacy react to the notion that the Shabrills might withdraw their order? What would you say accounts for their different reactions?
14. Why does Piet feel such guilt over the fate of Bela? What thoughts does he have at the moment he finds her in peril and how do they affect his response? Do you think that Piet did all that he could to help her, or is his guilt justified?
15. In Chapter 13, what does Luvo believe would be a “fairy tale more precious to him than the one about Father Christmas” (322)? Does the book ultimately support or refute his view that this is a fairy tale? Explain.
16. A theme of misunderstanding seems to course through the novel. What are some of the misunderstandings that occur between the characters in the book and what causes them? How do they affect the relationships between characters? Does the author suggest that these misunderstandings could be avoided or minimized? Are any of the misunderstandings ever resolved? If so, how?
17. At the conclusion of the story, is the question that was adopted as the book’s title—Who killed Piet Barol?—answered? What happens to Piet at the story’s conclusion and who is responsible?
About this AuthorRichard Mason is the author of The Drowning People (winner of Italy’s Grinzane Cavour prize for Best First Novel), Us, Natural Elements, and History of a Pleasure Seeker. He’s been long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin Library Award, and short-listed for the Sunday Times Literary Award and a Lambda Literary Award. Mason has written for European editions of Vanity Fair; American, British, and Italian Vogue; the London Times, The Guardian, the Evening Standard, Tatler, and The New York Times.
To write this book, Mason founded Project Lulutho, a center for green farming in South Africa’s rural Eastern Cape, and spent a year living under canvas—learning the language and culture of the Xhosa people.
Search Who Killed Piet Barol? on YouTube to watch the story of the creation of this novel.