Here are some discussion question about Herring Girl. If you’d like to contribute additional questions that have arisen  from your own reading of the novel, please get in touch. If your book group would like to review a different book for Mslexia magazine, click here.

  • The author used to work as a neuropsychologist. Did you get the impression that she believes in reincarnation?
  • Did you find that your own beliefs in the paranormal were challenged by the debates in the book? By the end, were you convinced that reincarnation was a real phenomenon?
  • Can you think of any other explanation for the events that took place at the end of the book? How else might Laura have come by that crucial final piece of information?
  • Do you think the book trivialised the dilemma of people with gender dysmorphia by suggesting that some might, literally, have been ‘born into the wrong body’? What responsibility does an author have for the opinions of the characters she creates?
  • What did you think of the portrayal of the more flamboyant characters in the book? Did you ‘believe’ in Lord Jim, the diabetic gay transvestite? What about Laura, the kindly transsexual?
  • Why was there so much about fishing and environmental issues in the present day? Is the author trying to say something about karma?
  • What was the significance – if any – of the feminisation of the flat fish along the Northumberland coast?
  • What did you think about Annie’s and Flo’s attitudes towards sex? How is it possible that they could be so innocent when people in 1898 lived in such crowded conditions?
  • Annie, Flo and the other folk living in the Low Town were clearly working class. How would you class Paul, Ben and Nana?
  • In 2007, Paul referred to Mary as ‘posh’; in 1898 Sam’s family are looked down on by others in the Low Town. How are class differences dealt with in the book?
  • The book alternated between two main time periods (2007 and 1898). Did you find the percentage split appropriate?
  • Why did the author set the contemporary storyline in the book in 2007, the year the smoking ban came in?
  • The story in 2007 was told from three characters’ points of view – Ben’s, Mary’s and Paul’s. The author used a different writing style for each. How successful was this in conveying their different personalities? Would you have preferred a more neutral narrative voice?
  • The author has complained about having to expunge a lot of Geordie dialect from the way the 1898 characters speak. How do you feel about dialect in fiction?
  • Were you able to identify the ‘specialist subject’ of each character in the book, i.e. the karmic challenge each had to face over the course of the novel? How successful were Mary, Paul, Skip, Ian and Laura at dealing with their challenges?
  • What was your assessment of Ian’s character? Was he sincere about loving Mary, or only interested in his career?
  • What was your final assessment of Tom? Were you able to forgive him in the end?
  • How did you want things to turn out for Ben? Did you want him to become reconciled to being a boy, or did you want him to end up having a sex-change?
  • What was the significance of the young woman lodger at the very end? Why was she pregnant? Why was she from India? And what did her arrival mean for Mary?
  • Do you think the baby will be a boy or a girl?