Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh is a great book club choice. It touches on contemporary social attitudes about immigration, with a pan-global setting, characters you want to hang out with and more than a dash of the mythical. These Gun Island book club questions will help you get the conversation going.
Our Gun Island discussion guide follows our usual format. We have a synopsis (just to remind you of the book’s rough outline). We’ve provided 10 discussion questions and we’ve pulled some provocative quotes from reviews that you can use to stimulate conversation.
If you liked the book and want more of it, we are also offering three ideas for books like Gun Island.
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Gun Island Synopsis
Gun Island, Amitav Ghosh
Bundook. Gun. A common word, but one that turns Deen Datta’s world upside down.
A dealer of rare books, Deen is used to a quiet life spent indoors, but as his once-solid beliefs begin to shift, he is forced to set out on an extraordinary journey; one that takes him from India to Los Angeles and Venice via a tangled route through the memories and experiences of those he meets along the way.
There is Piya, a fellow Bengali-American who sets his journey in motion; Tipu, an entrepreneurial young man who opens Deen’s eyes to the realities of growing up in today’s world; Rafi, with his desperate attempt to help someone in need; and Cinta, an old friend who provides the missing link in the story they are all a part of. It is a journey that will upend everything he thought he knew about himself, about the Bengali legends of his childhood, and about the world around him.
Amitav Ghosh‘s Gun Island is a beautifully realized novel that effortlessly spans space and time. It is the story of a world on the brink, of increasing displacement and unstoppable transition. But it is also a story of hope, of a man whose faith in the world and the future is restored by two remarkable women.
The Gun Island synopsis above is verbatim from the publisher. And it’s not inaccurate. But the description fails to mention one of the more interesting elements of the book. There is a strong dose of mythology threaded through the story. The myth of the Merchant of Gun Island, and Deen’s quest to find out more about it, drives a lot of the action in the story.
Gun Island Book Club Questions
- The quest in the book seems to have awakened Deen from a deep malaise. How do you think his approach to life (and his friends) changed over the course of the book?
- The modern day story and the myth about the Merchant of Gun Island have some parallels. What scenes from the modern day story had strains of the mythology for you?
- So much of the action in the book takes place on, near or in water. How is this important to the story?
- Tipu takes Deen to school regarding how low income Bangladeshis use smart phones to navigate their daily lives and plan their emigration routes. In fact, Deen had a more out of date phone than Tipu. How did that revelation change your thinking?
- Why did Tipu choose to cross borders illegally when he could have easily simply renewed his passport?
- Cinta and Deen lead very different lives, and yet they have become dear friends. What did you think of their friendship and how do you think it benefited each of them?
- Piya is a scientist in the midst of what is, at its heart, a mythological story. How does her pragmatism contribute to the narrative?
- The scene at the temple in the Sunderbans had a very Indiana Jones element to it, complete with snakes! Jones is usually the hero of his stories, but who was the hero in the cobra incident?
- As the The Lucania ship embarked upon its rescue mission, some very strange things begin to happen. These include tornadoes, hailstorms, a mass gathering of marine mammals and a swarm of birds and a wave of bioluminescence. Were these, as the warship captain proclaimed, “a miracle”? Is this magical realism?
- Looking forward in time from the end of the book, do you think that the events and news coverage surrounding the refugees could have had a material effect on public perception of illegal immigration?
Gun Island Selected Thought Provoking Reviews
“This is a story that could have missed its mark with the emphasis on climate change and environmentalism, but Ghosh sidesteps this by focusing on the micro level, making the characters come alive in the circumstances they find themselves in and the scenarios and dilemmas they face.”
“…[Ghosh] picks up on historical events and researches them carefully to run an authentic story line, and with his excellent descriptive writing sets it all beautifully. In my view this was missing from the most part of this book. Another reviewer called this ‘Dan Brownesque’ with the simple way it rolled out and answers found Deen.”
“Gun Island gives us a mixed bag of a story that ticks off many of today’s hot literary topics: magic realism, immigration, climate change, the need for an overriding hero.”
“It was interesting to know how the words from other languages morph into a different word/meaning in the local language in which the story is told.”
“I especially enjoyed the story’s geographic sweep and use of Hindu mythology, as well as the background material Ghosh braids into the story, although the didactic content and mysticism were a bit much for me at times.”
3 Books like Gun Island
Sea of Poppies (Ibis Trilogy #1)
by Amitav Ghosh
If Gun Island was your first book by Ghosh, you may want to explore more of his work. Sea of Poppies is the first in a trilogy that follows a motley crew of Indians and Westerners during a time of colonial upheaval. Fate has thrown together a bankrupt raja, a widowed tribeswoman, a mulatto American freedman and a free-spirited French orphan. As their old family ties are washed away, they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais, or ship-brothers. This book was shortlisted for a Man Booker.
by Shubhangi Swarup
Latitudes of Longing is also set in India and it features environmental themes. The book follows a scientist who studies trees, a clairvoyant who speaks to them, a geologist working to end futile wars over a glacier, octogenarian lovers, a mother struggling to free her revolutionary son, a yeti who seeks human companionship, a turtle who transforms first into a boat and then a woman, and the ghost of an evaporated ocean as restless as the continents.
by Mohsin Hamid
If you liked Gun Island’s themes of immigration and displacement, you should definitely read Exit West. It offers a speculative fiction twist on the traditional immigration story. Nadia and Sayeed are young Muslim lovers who are forced to flee during a civil war. They make their way through a closely guarded door which instantly transports them to another location. Through the experiences of the two main characters, the book explores the effects of mass immigration on immigrants, but also the societies that they immigrate to.
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