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The House at the Edge of Night Reader’s Guide

By Catherine Banner

The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner

READERS GUIDE

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. At the beginning of the book, Amedeo is “a foundling . . . a penniless jobbing physician” who “inhabited the world as bare as he had come into it, with no wife, no friend except his foster father, no descendants.” What do you think it is about the island of Castellamare that appeals to him?

2. Father Ignazio warns Amedeo that “a small place like this is an oppression. . . . Everyone who visits without having been born here thinks it delightfully rustic. . . . But anyone born on Castellamare will fight by any means possible to get off the island.” As an outsider, does Amedeo romanticize the island? Why do you think there is tension between those who are born on Castellamare and those, like Robert and Amedeo, who arrive as strangers? Have you ever experienced this difference of viewpoint in a place you have visited as a tourist?

3. Amedeo opens the bar, the House at the Edge of Night, after the uproar over the two babies forces him to give up his position as doctor. What do you think of the way the community handles this “scandal”? What about the way Carmela is treated by her neighbors, and by Amedeo?

4. For Amedeo, his book of stories is his most important possession, “full of the bright vistas of a thousand other lives.” The House at the Edge of Night draws inspiration from many real collectors of Italian folktales, including the real–life doctor Giuseppe Pitrè. What do you think is the significance of the folk stories in the book, for Amedeo, and to the community of Castellamare? Do you have any favorite stories that hold significance for your own life? Why do you think we, as human beings, are so drawn to storytelling?

5. When Maria–Grazia is young, she must work hard to assert herself as an individual in Castellamare, partly because she is a girl, and partly because everybody sees her as “the girl in leg braces.” What do you think are the challenges of growing up as a woman in a community like Castellamare in the early twentieth century? How does a visible disability, such as Maria–Grazia’s leg braces or Concetta’s childhood seizures, contribute to those challenges?

6. During the 1920s, Fascism threatens to divide the island, especially when Castellamare becomes one of Mussolini’s prison colonies. The islanders react to this in different ways. Some turn away from what is happening in an effort to keep the peace with their neighbors—-as Gesuina says, “We’ve all got to live together after this”—-while others, like Pina and Maria–Grazia, refuse “to look away.” Which response do you think is right? How would you have reacted to the danger of il conte and his Blackshirts if you were living in a small Italian community at the time?

7. In postwar Italy, the recovery process eventually led to a period of prosperity and peace. However, many of those who held positions of responsibility under Fascism continued to hold those positions after the war. What do you think of the ways in which the island attempts “to heave itself upright . . . to shake off the dust of war”? What do you think are the main factors that contribute to reconciliation after traumatic historical events?

8. Sergio and Giuseppino grow up in a very different world to the Fascist, interwar Italy of Maria–Grazia’s childhood: “Sergio and Giuseppino had been born in the very flourishing of the island’s -prosperity. As they grew up, Maria–Grazia marveled at the life they inhabited.” How do you think this affects the relationship between Maria–Grazia and her sons? Have you ever experienced a similar disconnect between different generations in your family or community?

9. Do you think the arrival of tourism and greater prosperity on the island in the second half of the twentieth century is a good thing for Castellamare?

10. Throughout the book, some characters remain on the island and some characters leave. Maria–Grazia, like Pina, has different views of the island at different stages in her life, but ultimately makes her peace with her hometown. How has your view of your hometown changed at different periods in your life?

11. Do you think Lena should have left the island to train as a doctor, or stayed? Why do you think the choice is harder for her than it is for most of the male characters, for example, Flavio and Giuseppino? What do you think that women gain and lose by deciding to stay in the place in which they are born?

12. In many families, like the Esposito family, women make sacrifices in order to enable younger generations to survive or prosper. This was the case for Pina, and in some ways for Maria–Grazia. What obstacles have been successfully removed between Pina’s lifetime and Maddalena’s, and which have remained? Do you see a difference in opportunity between different generations of women in your own culture?

13. Maria–Grazia has an important role in Maddalena’s life, and ultimately passes the bar to her granddaughter. Women were not often part of the “recorded history” in the periods that this book spans, and the book is in many ways an “alternate history” of those times, centered on the lives of the women of the Esposito family. Do you think the novel is feminist? Can storytelling change our perceptions of women’s place in history?

14. The starting point for the novel was the 2008 financial crisis, and this is where the book ends. What were your experiences of this period of our recent history? Do you see similarities in what happened to the community of Castellamare and what happened in the wider world?

15. Over the course of the book, the House at the Edge of Night survives two world wars, Fascism, the economic boom of the 1970s and ’80s, and ninety–five years of the Esposito family’s personal history. Studies show that family businesses worldwide rarely survive to the third or fourth generation, though in Italy the figure is higher. Do you think the bar would have survived after the end of the book?

 
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