Aimee Liu

Novelist, Essayist, Teacher

Flash House Reading Guide

Discussion Questions

  1. In the opening pages, Kamla states that “Joanna Shaw rescued me in her way, and I tried to return the favor.” How and why did Joanna need to be “rescued,” or was that need only in Kamla’s mind? Was Kamla successful in her attempt to return the favor?
  2. Joanna Shaw is a social worker who attempts to rescue girls who’ve been trafficked into India’s sex trade. What does her chosen profession reveal about her character? Why is this important within the overall story?
  3. “Flash House” is a Victorian term for brothel – or house of prostitution. Kamla escapes from just such a house, but how does the metaphor of the “flash house” reflect other aspects of the novel?
  4. Early in the novel, Joanna Shaw’s boss, Hari, lectures her about the horrors India suffered during Partition. “I try to remember what a short time you have been in India,” he tells her, “you have no idea what is rape…” Is this meant as an indictment of American naiveté, or as a plea for help? How does Joanna’s relative unfamiliarity with Asia’s recent history affect her choice to pursue Aidan?
  5. Throughout this novel the characters make reference to the Great Game, the historical rivalry between Britain and Russia for control of the northern access routes to the Indian subcontinent. Why and how is the Great Game relevant to the political intrigues that engulf Joanna, Aidan, Kamla, and Lawrence in Sinkiang? Are there parallels you can draw between the Great Game and world political events today?
  6. All four of the main characters – Joanna, Lawrence, Simon, and Kamla – live outside their native states and cultures. They are, in effect, stateless, so that this becomes a story about the expatriate experience. In what ways is this a shared experience for all four characters? How and why is this experience different for each of them? How does their mutual statelessness impact their choices and interactions?
  7. Absence is a critical theme throughout this story. Aidan’s absence drives Joanna’s actions through much of the novel. Kamla and Simon both are marked by parental absence. Lawrence mourns the loss of his son. What are the effects of absence on the emotions and behavior of the characters?
  8. Although the novel is told through alternating chapters in three different voices, the story is bookended by sections written from Kamla’s point of view as an elderly woman. How does this perspective shape the overall story? Why do you think the author selected Kamla rather than Joanna as the primary narrator?
  9. Aimee Liu has said that her earliest drafts of FLASH HOUSE were written from the perspective of Simon as a grown man. Why do you think she abandoned this approach? How would it have altered the story for you if Simon had been telling the tale?
  10. What questions does the story raise about the impulse to rescue? Is rescue, as described in the story, intrinsically moral, emotional, or pragmatic? What links does the story suggest between acts of rescue and acts of love?
  11. In the epilogue Kamla states, “What mattered most in the end was not right or wrong. It was not politics or fidelity or even understanding. Certainly it was not the act of rescue. It was simply our mutual ineptitude at love.” Is Kamla a reliable narrator? What does she mean by “our mutual ineptitude at love”?
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