Jackets and blurbs ...
The original 1990 edition ...
Reading Group Guide ...

Some notes from the author ...

Reviews ...
A review of the original 1990 edition, from the Literary Review UK

Read an extract: Chapter Five: Nighttime in Kilbrack ...
Read a joke: of lesbians and avocados ...

Amazons ... should you choose to purchase.

Jamie O’Neill home
At Swim, Two Boys
Short Stories

Kilbrack home ...
Reading Group Guide
  1. Think back to your initial impression of the main character, O’Leary Montague. What were your feelings about the man during the first chapters? In what ways does the author use the first scene, the train ride to Kilbrack, to drop clues about O’Leary-his neuroses, his past, his troubled mind?
  2. Talk about O’Leary’s point of view in this story and how credible it may or may not be. Did you trust his version of the past and of the present? To what extent is his interpretation of the world colored by his fears, doubts and insecurities? For example, look at O’Leary’s story of how he was arrested for sexual deviance. Can we believe him when he claims to have stumbled into that situation in complete innocence? What about the other characters in this novel? Did you believe certain individuals more than others?
  3. What role do O’Leary’s diary memos play in the story? Why, when they do little to advance the plot, has the author included them? In what ways do these entries speak to O’Leary’s state of mind and his development as a character? Why does O’Leary so desperately hold on to words for comfort?
  4. It seems that just about every character in Kilbrack suffers from strange and/or obsessive behavior. Whether it is an unhealthy aversion to buttons, or an addiction to cocaine, many characters seem to cope with their worst fears by developing peculiar aversions and behaviors. Why so many compulsive behaviors in one town? What, if anything, seems to cause these neuroses? How do these obsessions help the people in this story deal with the world around them?
  5. Similarly, what role do inanimate objects play in these behaviors? A book, a lemon Jiffy, a statue of a magpie-what power and significance do objects, symbols, and talismans hold for the characters in this story? How do they use them to distance themselves from emotion, memory and meaningful interaction? Why do they feel that they need them to survive?
  6. As Livia reads “Ill Fares the Land,” she thinks back on the tumultuous relationship between Uncle Val and his son, observing, “Only love could lie beneath it. For love alone could produce such anger, such retribution…So much love wasted, perverted.” Discuss the nature of love in this story. What causes this perversion that Livia speaks of and how does it seem to be at the heart of a larger problem in Kilbrack?
  7. "We’re all so jealous of the past, nursing old wounds and grievances…anyone so jealous of the past must be insecure of his present. Is it the Irish in us?” In what ways does this astute observation from Livia shed light on the tension between past and present? How does history and tradition stultify the present in the world of Kilbrack? What are the dangers of living in the past? By the end of the novel, do you believe that this town has finally broken free of the past?
  8. How do the characters in this story seem to fit in with the backdrop of the natural world around them? How might location and setting go hand and hand with tradition and history?
  9. Does religion play a part in holding people captive to history and tradition? Monsignor Michael-with his proselytizing and his condescension-demonstrates a heightened sense of importance and entitlement that is truly staggering. Yet, he is also human, a man subject to the whims of his own insecurities. What kind of a representative is he for the church? How does the battle between the two dominant religions help to keep the Irish people beholden to their faith, and therefore their past? Is this a particularly Irish phenomenon, as Livia suspects?
  10. At one point, after Uncle Val criticizes his son for going “against tradition,” Livia responds with, “How could he owe anything to tradition, when tradition itself decries his very existence?” Is it only his sexuality that sets O’Leary apart from tradition or is there something more? Is reconciliation possible between the traditional Irish world and the gay community?
  11. What larger issues might O’Leary’s amnesia speak to? On page 259, Livia observes, “He’s lost his memory. So he says. I think it’s some sort of excuse for not remembering his past.” Keeping this quote in mind, look at the ways that O’Leary’s memory loss may be a metaphor for greater self-delusion. How much do any of the characters in this story “know” themselves? What is the nature of self-knowledge, and how does one achieve it? Why does O’Leary need to invent a history through the character of Nancy Valentine and in what ways is O’Leary’s journey of self-discovery further complicated by his sexuality?
  12. Besides Mary, Livia seems to be the only person in O’Leary’s life capable of insight and free thought. What character traits does she possess that allow her to dig beneath the surface of things to get to the truth? Is she a symbol of Ireland’s future?
  13. It is interesting that Mary, one of the most fascinating characters in this story, is also one of the most mysterious. At the end of the novel, in a dream, O’Leary comes to realize that Mary never existed, but Mary herself contends that she was “real enough. While it lasted.” Her words are cryptic-providing as many questions as answers. What then should we make of Mary’s presence in the novel? Was she a figment of O’Leary’s imagination, an angel, his own alter ego? If O’Leary re-invents his own history through the eyes of Nancy Valentine, as Mary insists he does, then what does he do through the eyes of Mary?