Excerpted from The Fourth Queen by Debbie Taylor. Copyright © 2003 by Debbie Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. The first time we meet Helen, she is dismayed that conditions on the ship are not how she had imagined them. Rather than “little round windows, splashed with saltwater… a few neat partitions to separate family groups,” she finds a filthy, pestilent debacle. Only then does she realize that her decision to run away has been rash. Does Helen continue to act impetuously in the rest of the novel, or does she learn from this one horrible mistake?
2. Fijil waxes rhapsodic on “God’s penchant for the crooked.” He feels that he has found his niche among God’s “cock-eyed creations.” He writes, “In this Land of Giants I am the runt pup escaped from the drowning sack. In my darker hours I muse on the motives of our Good Shepherd for hauling my sack, and others like it, from the river.” What does he conclude? How would you compare Fijil’s self-esteem with that of Helen? Batoom? The Emperor? Is this a real faith in the divine he alludes to, or is he only joking?
3. Fijil describes power in the harem as “wielded constantly downward, like a very waterfall of tyranny, from the Emperor at the apex, inexorably down through the hierarchy of wives and slaves… ” Where do Fijil, Malia, and the three Queens fall in this hierarchy? Which characters wield power without the Emperor’s knowledge? Fijil and Malia could easily blackmail each other with secret knowledge—what stops them? Discuss how Helen’s role in the hierarchy shifts throughout the novel.
4. Analyzing the Emperor’s hunger for riches, Fijil observes that “a man whose vocation is Accumulation often looks on that which he has accumulated with a sort of repugnance. Once a thing has been purchased it loses much of its value, much as the food, once chewed and swallowed, becomes a loathsome wet bolus contaminated with gall juices of the foulest kind. Thus the very Act of Consumption degrades that which it consumes.” Discuss hunger as a recurring theme in the novel, including hunger for money, sex, power, home, freedom, belonging, acceptance. Which characters are able to satisfy their hunger? In which cases does Fijil’s theory—that “once a thing has been purchased it loses much of its value”—hold true?
5. The author conveys a pivotal shift in Helen’s self-perception and heralds a major plot twist, with the introduction of a simple object—a purple dress—and the sentence, “And one day, when she’d scrubbed herself thoroughly and washed her hair, and the Bairds were off playing cards in the captain’s quarters, she decided to try it on.” What are the ramifications of Helen wearing the purple dress at the moment the ship is captured? What does the dress represent to her? How does it function as a sign that Helen is ready to dump her friends Betty and Dougie if a better opportunity comes along? What is ironic about this episode?
6. The Fourth Queen is Helen’s story. Yet Batoom is arguably the heroine of the novel. Do you agree? Why or why not?
7. The first time Helen is chosen for the Emperor’s bed, Fijil feels like a pimp: “She is his: every curl, every eyelash. And I am his Pimp, with his emerald, my Pimp’s wages, in my pocket.” Forty-eight chapters later, during one of Helen’s last visits to the Emperor, Fijil again calls himself “a most superlative pimp.” Why is his meaning completely different this time? Why does this second episode mark a turning point in Fijil’s life?
8. The harem is described as a claustrophobic, walled maze of “fripperies and cloying oils,” dulled by “a terrible ennui.” Fijil writes: “It’s all slippers here, you see, night and day: shuffling along down at heel, as if there were no tomorrow, as if each destination were of like importance (by which I mean of no importance) and each appointment equally pressing (by which I mean not pressing in the least). What projects do Naseem, Lungile, Batoom, and Douvia use to circumvent the boredom of the harem and create exciting interior lives for themselves—as well as a vision of the future? Why is Helen unable to employ this trick?
9. The extent of the Emperor’s cruelty is woven subtly into the novel. Douvia’s torture, the maiming of servants, the dismissal of unwanted women, and so on, are dropped casually into the text. Why do you think the author uses this method to unveil the character of the Emperor?
10. At what point do you realize that Helen is ruthlessly self-preserving? Does this make you like her more or less? Why do you think she loses her sense of caution after becoming the Emperor’s favorite, since she can clearly see the dangers inherent in becoming queen? Is her recklessness based on naiveté, or does she have a self-destructive streak?
11. Fijil, Batoom, Naseem, Lungile, even Malia, view the world outside the harem with hope, longing, and memories that are fond even if they are painful. But for Helen, “Thinking of the outside world made her feel edgy, like being reminded of an important chore she’d forgotten.” How do you account for this difference? What is Helen escaping by embracing life in the harem?
12. Discuss Fijil’s motto about our human capacity to collude with tyrants: “By donning clean garments and a winning smile, a monster may monster unmolested forever. And we will be dazzled by the white of his linens, and rub our eyes, and sigh with relief that the shadows have receded. And forget his dark deeds. And so become culpable, too.”
13. After Naseem’s grisly death—which Helen chooses to see as merely a disappearance—Helen stops seeing Fijil. “Since the Berber died, she seems to feel my very presence as an irritant… she will not, will not, look at me…she has left nary a chink in the tight armor of her days… Nothing can pierce the quilts of her satisfaction.” Why?
14. Fijil catches on to the true lesson behind his precious button when he states, “I have had my true mother in my pocket all along, but I never saw it before, so caught up have I been with the false one who threw me away.” What decision does this epiphany prompt? Why does he revisit the lesson of the button right before he leaves the harem? What’s the significance of his comment, “ I have retrieved my button and placed it on my table, with its sheen down and its dull surface uppermost. Love is in the bone of a person. There is no pearly gleam; naught to see at all save with the mind’s eye”? Do you think he is truly finished with Helen at this point?
15. Why is Helen so enchanted by Melissa’s helplessness? How do you think her adventure would have been different had Helen not met the Bairds on the ship?