1. What techniques does MacIntyre use to build suspense? Consider, for example, the opening phrase “The night before things started to become unstuck . . . ” How does MacIntyre’s use of foreshadowing and flashbacks affect your experience of the novel?
2. Discuss the various forms of isolation in the novel. How does isolation impact Duncan’s life? Is it something he dislikes, or craves? Why?
3. Discuss the impact of suicide on the community of Creignish, across generations. How has Duncan been affected by his own interactions with suicide?
4. Years ago Duncan trained himself to ignore the protests of errant priests. “Accuse the accuser, one of their best tactics,” he notes (p. 133). What drives Duncan to face his own transgressions? What are your thoughts on his romantic alliances? What is your opinion on the issue of celibacy in the priesthood?
5. At Braecrest, Dr. Shaw observes that Duncan's father, his “young woman” and his priesthood occupy the same place in his memory, a place of "despair neutralized by hope" (p. 342). Do you think this is an accurate assessment? What are the sources of despair, and hope, in Duncan’s life?
6. Duncan wonders, “So many of these priests are clever, funny men. The freaks are so rare. But they're the only ones I really know. How have I managed to spend twenty-seven years in this ministry and known only the bad ones? Why have I never been part of the wider community of funny, clever and perhaps even holy men? What is it that draws me to the tragic and the flawed?” (p. 264). How would you answer these questions? Could Duncan have found a different role in the church? Could his gifts have been put to better use?
7. Duncan opens Book Three by describing “the day my life began assuming what I expect will be its final shape.” After meeting a police officer, he momentarily considers Alfonso’s teachings about contrition, before listening to another unnamed voice in his head (p. 207). What do you think of Alfonso’s assertion that true contrition must be an act that results in positive change? How would things have been different if Duncan had heeded Alfonso’s words that day? Did he miss other opportunities? Where does the other voice come from?
8. Discuss the behaviour of fathers in the novel, both biological and within the clergy. How do they leave their mark? What about the women of Creignish?
9. Discuss the strategies Effie and Duncan each developed as a means of surviving their dysfunctional childhoods. How are they the same? How different?
10. Discuss the role alcohol plays in the community of Creignish, and in Duncan’s life. What is it that finally gives him the strength to stop drinking? Do you think he will stay sober?
11. “The phone aroused me on that Monday morning in Port Hood and launched the narrative that I must now, with some reluctance, share” (p. 5). Who do you suppose Duncan intends as his audience? Do you always trust his words? Does your opinion of his reliability change at any point as you read? What is your opinion of Duncan, overall?
12. In their final conversation, Jude warns Duncan that "There's no morality in an institution. It's just a thing" (p. 354). Do you agree?
13. What do you think of Duncan’s gatekeeper role? Would you say that he was complicit in a cover up? Or is he absolved because he was following orders? Do other factors mitigate his responsibility?
14. Could this novel still work if Duncan were a teacher, soldier or politician?
15. How do you feel about the novel’s ending? What is your opinion of Duncan’s actions near the end? Does he go far enough? Where do you think his life will take him?
16. Consider the passages MacIntyre uses as epigraphs to each of the four books in the novel. What is the significance of each?
17. This novel is a work of fiction that could be described as “ripped from the headlines.” How would you compare the experience of reading this novel with that of reading news reports? What are the pros and cons of each format?