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The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s conversation about Norma, the intoxicating new novel from Sofi Oksanen, acclaimed author of Purge and When the Doves Disappeared.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Explore Norma’s powers. What does her hair enable her to detect in her environment and in those around her? What aspect of her powers does Norma conceal from her mother, and what is the significance of this concealment? Does she consider her hair to be a blessing or a curse? 

2. Examine the role of secrets in the novel. Which characters keep secrets from others? Why? Are they secrets of necessity or secrets of choice? What is at stake in each character’s deception?

3. Who were the Sutherland sisters? Who was Elizabeth Siddal? What do these women represent to Anita? Why does she view their lives as cautionary tales?

4. Who was Eva? Why did she decide to leave the Naaka property and the life she had built there? What happened to her in America? How does the specter of Eva guide Anita’s life choices?

5. Examine Helena’s character, paying close attention to the events that lead to her collapse. What life experiences do Helena and Anita share? Why does Anita first suggest that Helena begin smoking Norma’s hair? What are the side effects of this habit? What act leads to Helena’s institutionalization? How does this incident affect the lives of Alvar and Marion? 

6. On page 211, Anita tells Norma, “He who controls dreams, controls the world.” What dreams do the Lambert clan exploit? What motivates them? Who is most susceptible to this exploitation? As you answer these questions, consider issues of gender, race, class, and country of origin.

7. Explore the theme of beauty in the novel. Which individuals hold the most influence over societal standards of beauty? What does the novel suggest about the lengths to which some people are willing to go for beauty? Can beauty ever be a force for good? Why or why not?

8. Who is Albino? What is her connection to the Lambert clan? How does she betray them, and what happens to her as a result? Why does Marion feel she is haunted by Albino?

9. Compare and contrast Anita and Marion’s motivations for exposing the Lambert clan’s illicit operations. What does each character hope to accomplish? How do they intend to do so? How do they deceive each other, and what are the consequences?

10. Explore the theme of motherhood in Norma. What risks does one take when one decides to become a mother? What are one’s responsibilities as a mother? Does Anita fulfill these responsibilities? Why or why not?

11. How is Anita’s plot foiled? What happens to her once she is captured by the Lambert clan? Why don’t they believe anything she tells them? What causes her death?

12. Examine the theme of mental illness as it is depicted in the novel. Which characters are believed to be mad by those around them? Is “madness” an accurate diagnosis? Why or why not? What does the possibility of misdiagnosis suggest about prevailing attitudes toward behavior we don’t understand?

13. Discuss the deal that Norma and Alvar strike. What is the outcome of their alliance? What does this result suggest about Alvar’s character? Do you believe that Lambert, Alla, and Marion are dead? Is Norma really safe? 

14. sider the significance of the final sentences of the novel. Why do you think Norma continues visiting Helena in her mother’s stead? What would it mean for Norma to find others who are like her?

Suggested Reading

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
The Bat by Jo Nesbø
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Broken Harbor by Tana French
The Country Life by Rachel Cusk
Faithful by Alice Hoffman
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
In the Cut by Susanna Moore
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Purge by Sofi Oksanen
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
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