Discussion Notes

Ian Reid’s novels have proved to be popular choices with a variety of book clubs and reading groups.

The following topics and questions may be useful for stimulating discussion of A Thousand Tongues.


  • The story’s action extends across different periods and character sets. Do these correspond to different aspects of the general theme of conscience?
  • What light is shed on this theme by the pair of epigraphs – passages quoted from Shakespeare and Barnes that precede the novel’s opening?
  • If conscience is an inner sense of right and wrong, can it vary according to time and circumstance or is it shaped by certain basic moral values?
  • Among the conscientious objectors in the Princetown Work Centre, what different political views and personal motivations are revealed?


  • How many hidden truths emerge in the course of the story?
  • Why have they been kept secret? Is it always a matter of deliberate concealment?

Race, ethnicity and class

  • What forms of racial or ethnic prejudice affect the attitudes of some characters?
  • Which characters eventually have a change of mind about this, and why?
  • How important is the influence of social class on particular individuals?


  • Are any of the characters entirely admirable, or do they all have mixed qualities and motives?
  • Do your sympathies towards some of them shift as the story unfolds?

Different kinds of history

  • Formal research, genealogy, personal reminiscence… Are any other kinds of historical enquiry represented in this novel?
  • The two main present-day characters are engaged in scholarly historical studies, but each becomes dissatisfied with that approach and is attracted to alternative ways of exploring the past. Does the story as a whole imply a sceptical view about what the pursuit of historical fact can achieve?

Points of view

  • Different parts of the story are seen through the eyes of different characters. Does this narrative method hold your interest?
  • Does this storytelling technique suggest that the truth about anybody’s situation is inescapably subjective?

Time and place

  • A reviewer of a previous novel by this author says, “Wherever his characters go, Reid places us vividly there.” Has that been your experience in reading A Thousand Tongues? Did you find it to be true of the various periods in which the story is set, as well as the various locations?
  • In this story, history is intertwined with geography. Is our understanding of who we are always shaped by where we are?


  • “A novel is a pattern,” says the writer Colm Toibin, “and it is our job to see clearly its textures and tones.” In the “texture” of A Thousand Tongues, what recurrent visual motifs or images have you noticed, and what do they signify? (Stones and stains, walls and cavities, monuments and graves…?)

Student life

  • The story includes scenes of university student life in early 20th-century London and Perth a century later. What contrasts in sexual behaviour does the story depict?
  • What else has changed, and what hasn’t?
  • Literature, history, politics: as represented in A Thousand Tongues, what do these fields of study have in common, and how do they differ?

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