Talking about The Concubine’s Child at Bookclub

Here are a few discussion questions that might come in handy if you decide to read The Concubine’s Child for your bookclub. Please feel free to skip as many as you like. I went into overdrive!

  1. The prologue is narrated by an unnamed woman. Who did you think she was, and how did your feelings towards her change as the book progressed? What expectations did the prologue raise?
  2. How important is the setting to the story? Could it have taken place somewhere else? What did you particularly like about the setting?
  3. Yu Lan believes that she and Ming cannot choose their own destinies because ‘they were sixteen and their lives did not belong to them’. Can any of the characters in the historical strand of the novel choose their own destinies? What about the contemporary story?
  4. When she is sold as Chan’s concubine, Yu Lan’s mother advises her, ‘You must be fluid like water because water defeats the strongest stone in time.’ Does Yu Lan agree with her? Would Ho Jie or Madam Chan agree with her? How does this attitude differ to the Western idea of taking charge of your destiny?
  5. Gods, spirits, ancestors and ghosts are a recurring presence in the novel. What part do they play in the characters’ lives and fates? Compare the contemporary characters attitudes towards the spirit world with those of the 1930s characters. Do their beliefs change at all?
  6. Yu Lan believes that the Chans have enslaved her. Do you ever sympathise with them?
  7. In what ways does the opening chapter of the contemporary story foreshadow the events that follow? What hints are there in the first two chapters of the contemporary story that things might not go so well for Nick?
  8. Nick says, ‘I’m the last Chan in the family.’ How are descendants and filial piety important to the various characters in the novel?
  9. Revenge plays a central role in the novel. What examples of revenge are there, both large and petty? What does revenge cost the characters?
  10. What do you think Sarah is most afraid of?
  11. Ho Jie says that, ‘Men brought only trouble. And if trouble was coming, better if it came bearing gold.’ How pragmatic are the characters in the The Concubine’s Child?
  12. Ho Jie also says of her sisters at the silk factory in Shonde that, ‘… they had shared many tricks.’ What other tricks might they have shared?
  13. How would you describe Ho Jie’s relationship with Yu Lan? How does it change through the novel?
  14. Why does Yu Lan decide that only she can free herself? How does she set about doing so? What is her power? What is her weakness?
  15. Polygamy was quite common in Malaysia and China in the first half of the 20th century and Ho Jie speaks of the old Chinese saying that ‘two tigers cannot share one mountain’. How does Yu Lan’s presence affect the household? Do you think this was inevitable?
  16. What did you think was the saddest part of the story? Why?
  17. How do the stories and characters, past and present, parallel each other? How do they differ? Why do you think the author chose to use mirror stories?
  18. When she returns to Kuala Lumpur Sarah says, ‘Secrets, truths, lies, ghosts, they were all the same really. All things you didn’t want to confront.’ What do you think she means by this?
  19. How did you feel about the ending of the story? Was it unexpected? Did it feel complete to you? How is the prologue reflected in the epilogue?
  20. Do you think The Concubine’s Child is a ghost story?