NEA Big Read
Ways of Going Home

Ways of Going Home

by Alejandro Zambra

While the country was falling to pieces, we were learning to talk, to walk, to fold napkins in the shape of boats.


NOTE: To differentiate the key male voices associated with Ways of Going Home, we use “the author” to refer to Zambra; “the narrator” to refer to the character who's writing the novel and speaks to us in the second and fourth chapters; and “the young man” to refer to the boy-turned-young-adult in chapters one and three who is the subject of the narrator's novel.

  1. The first chapter of Ways of Going Home is called “Secondary Characters.” What does it mean to be a secondary character? Who are the secondary characters of this book? How do they each cope with this role?
  2. Why do you think the author decided to structure his book the way he did? How would your reading experience be different if the author began with the narrator's story instead of the young man's?
  3. “While the adults killed or were killed, we drew pictures in a corner,” writes the narrator (p. 41). How are children insulated from the adult world in Ways of Going Home? Do you believe adults should try to shield children from a harsh reality? If so, to what degree? How do the author's characters try to come to terms with their innocence and guilt?
  4. The novel takes place during a time of political turmoil in Chile's history. What do you know about Salvador Allende? About Augusto Pinochet? What might you imagine life was like for children of both rich and poor families under the governments of each? Where does the author draw the line between the political and the personal? In what ways does the time in which we live shape who we are?
  5. Why do you think the author keeps both the narrator and the young man nameless? Why does the narrator feel it's “a relief” (p. 37) not to give the characters in his novel last names? What effect did this have for you as a reader? Are there other places in the book where names of people, places or things might signify larger issues at play?
  6. The novel's plot is built around people who have “known” each other for many years—parents, spouses, childhood friends. What does Eme mean when she tells the narrator that, for a relationship to work, “sometimes you have to pretend we've just met” (p. 119)? Do you ever wish you could meet someone again for the first time?
  7. How does the narrator's relationship with Eme compare to the young man's relationship with Claudia? How does one inform the other? Do you agree with Eme that it was a kind of “robbery” (p. 133) when the narrator gave parts of her life story to Claudia?
  8. Referring to the 1985 earthquake in Chile at the beginning of the novel, the young man says, “I think it's a good thing to lose confidence in the solidity of the ground” (p. 9). What do you think he means by this? Do you agree? Why do you think the author chose to begin and end the book with earthquakes?
  9. What takeaways do you draw from the book about who “owns” stories and what it means to try to tell them? What happens (or should happen) when people cannot or will not tell their stories? The young man tells us that, when we tell others' stories, “we always end up telling our own” (p. 85). Do you agree?
  10. “My story isn't terrible...there were others who suffered more, who suffer more,” says Claudia (p. 97). Why does she compare her suffering to others? Have you ever found it difficult to empathize with someone else because your own pain felt more immediate? Or vice versa?
  11. The book includes two similar scenes involving a late-night conversation: in the first scene the narrator speaks with his mother (p. 62-65); in the second scene the young man speaks with his mother (p. 107-111). How do they diverge? Why do you think the author chose to “repeat” this particular scene? Did you read the first scene differently after reading the second one? Were there other scenes that were similar for both the narrator and the young man?
  12. Says the narrator: “To read is to cover one's face. And to write is to show it” (p. 50). What do you think he means by this? What did you learn from the novel about the struggles writers face?
  13. Ways of Going Home is a book in translation (from Spanish into English). What might you imagine are the difficulties in bringing a story from one language into another?
  14. What do you make of the title?
  15. In what ways does the narrator change when, as an adult, he discovers more about his parents' past? How does this affect their relationship? Did you ever discover something new about your parents that made you view them differently? If you have children, how do you think they will remember you?
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