This Human Season
About the book:
November 1979, the height of Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Kathleen Moran’s son Sean has just been transferred to the hypersecure H-block in Belfast’s notorious Maze prison, where he soon emerges as a young but important force in the extreme protest that political prisoners are staging there. John Dunn is also newly arrived at the prison, having taken on the job of guard—a brutal but effective way to support a house and a girlfriend. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, no one’s dreams go untroubled. As rumors of a hunger strike begin to circulate, Louise Dean’s pitch-perfect novel places two parents, two sons, and two enemies on a collision course that ends in a surprising and deeply resonant climax.
About the author:
Louise Dean is the author of Becoming Strangers, which won the Betty Trask Award and was long-listed for the 2004 Man Booker Prize as well as the Guardian First Novel Award. She lives in France.
Click here to download the reading guide for This Human Season.
1. Discuss the various parent-child relationships in This Human Season. For example, compare Sean’s relationship with his children with Kathleen’s relationship with them, and with John’s developing relationship with his son, Mark. What other interesting parent-child relationships did you notice? How do parents and children influence one another both positively and negatively in the novel?
2. Why does Liam tell his mother, “There are things I’d die for” (page 114)? Why does he want to smoke a cigarette with her, and why does she let him?
3. Why does Sean Senior lie about his involvement with the IRA? Is there any truth in his stories?
4. Discuss Sean and Kathleen’s troubled marriage. What has gone wrong for them, and why? What is the state of their marriage at the beginning of the novel and at the end, and how do they get there? How much do the Troubles have to do with their difficulties?
5. Janet Lingard asks about the protesting prisoners who smear excrement on their cell walls, “Do you think that subconsciously, they’re basically children playing up? Tom wouldn’t crap in the potty, but Anthea would, you see. And he was just testing me, trying to show me who was boss” (page 248). Do you think that, by putting this question in the voice of such a glib and unsympathetic character, Dean is signaling that we shouldn’t think about the protesting prisoners in these simplistic Freudian terms? How do you interpret the novel’s frequent references to bodily functions and toilets?the smell from the filth-smeared cell walls of the prisoners “on the blanket” that clings to John Dunn constantly, John’s dream about being watched on the toilet, the jars that the Moran children fill with urine to throw at British soldiers, etcetera?
6. One of the central themes of the novel is the tension between the personal and the political. Are there any characters in the novel whose motivations are wholly personal or wholly political? Are the prisoners who are “on the blanket” pure in their ideology? Are the prison guards motivated only by self-interest? Do you think that there is any moral difference between violence committed for political motivations and violence committed for personal reasons? In the context of a bitter and complex conflict like the Troubles, can a distinction be made between personal violence and political violence?
7. Margaret Coogan says of the young generation of IRA men, “If it’s in them, it’s in them . . . they’re choosing a way of life . . . if there wasn’t this war, they would have had to have invented one” (pages 48–49). Later, John says, “We can all say it’s wrong, but none of us can help the fact that it’s in us. There’s something bloody horrible inside us; a monster” (page 327). Are the young men naturally violent, or naturally susceptible to indoctrination? To what extent are those on both sides of the conflict choosing violence, and to what extent is it forced upon them? How much moral responsibility do they bear for their own actions?
8. Paul Gray wrote in his rave review of This Human Season in the New York Times Book Review that “the passions that once inflamed Belfast have moved elsewhere and now produce headlines—out of Baghdad and Beirut and so many other places—that make what happened during the Troubles appear almost genteel.” Compare and contrast the Troubles as they are presented in this novel with other conflicts that have been waged between different religious, ethnic, or political factions within a country—the current conflict between Shia, Sunni, and American forces in Iraq, for example. How are the politics, tactics, and effects on the lives of noncombatants similar or different in the two conflicts?
9. Discuss the character of Father Pearse. What is his function in the community and in the lives of the Moran family? Why doesn’t he hear God speak as much as he used to (page 274)? How and why do his beliefs differ from the official position of the Catholic Church? Do you think he is a good priest?
10. What role does music play in this novel? Why does Dean include so many song lyrics? Discuss the Christmas Eve scene where the guard plays Pink Floyd’s The Wall for the prisoners (pages 286–292). Why does he do so? How does hearing the album affect the prisoners? What kind of thoughts does it stir in Sean and Gerard?
11. Why doesn’t John turn in the contraband note right away? Why does he turn it in to Lingard and not to his immediate superior? Is he accepting or avoiding moral responsibility by turning it in? How does his decision to turn it in relate to the incident from his army days in which he ran over civilians at the order of his superior?
12. Why does John ask Mark to take his surname just after he is threatened in the pub (page 329)? Are the two events related? What does having a son who bears his name do for John?
13. Dean did extensive research for this novel, interviewing hundreds of people in Northern Ireland about their lives and experiences during the Troubles. Where in the novel do you see the fruits of this research? Which situations or characters do you imagine might have been adapted from the stories of real people? How might the novel have been different if Dean had not done so much research?