Poppy Adams is on the bill to speak about The Behaviour of Moths alongside Rebecca Abrams speaking on Touching Distance at Ways With Words on Monday July 14th at 5pm. Having now read both books I'm intrigued because the common denominator is not there on the surface, but dig a bit deeper and there you find it, the place science and research play in both these excellent novels.
It all leads me to ponder what makes a good novel for me and to be honest I'd probably give a different answer depending on my mood, the day of the week, whether there's an 'r' in the month or whether it's raining or sunny.
It's all quite the moveable definition but both these books did the trick, drew me in and kept me there, plenty of interesting strands to hold my attention and whereas Touching Distance was to a certain extent known territory for me, The Behaviour of Moths was not.
I know as much as would cover about a quarter of a wing of a Feathered Footman but will admit this book made me get The Observer's book down off the shelf and look something up. Mulleins grow in our garden and I know we checked it out years ago when we found huge caterpillers on them, but I couldn't remember the moth. Innovatively they attract Mullein moths and now I'm waiting and watching.
It must be getting increasingly difficult to find unexplored fictional territory these days, I remember Ways With Words a few years ago and by chance two authors had written novels with the central theme of seahorses. Obscure indeed so how galling to find that someone else has done the same as you? They gamely shared the platform and we all emerged completely in the know about the genus hippocampus and all associated metaphors.
Moths feels like a new and original theme, bees and butterflies seem to have been done to death but not moths in my albeit limited knowledge. The literary metaphors and allegory abound now I consider them , pupae and chrysalis, moths to a flame.
Now I expect you all to give me a list of hordes of moth-fiction.
A slowly unravelling thread of mystery is played out throughout the book as a past emerges predominantly through the eyes of a narrator who feels far from reliable. But there is little else to fall back on as the aged Ginny awaits the arrival of her sister Vivien to the crumbling but expansive family mansion. The two sisters haven't seen each other for forty-seven years and you immediately ask yourself why and I carried on asking myself that question right to the end of the novel.
Ginny, obessessive, compulsive, a seemingly poor judge of character, detached from reality and lacking in social skills after living the life of a remote recluse as her father's apprentice in his moth research. It's tempting to place her somewhere on the autistic spectrum but where?
'I'm a scientist and I'm afraid I don't work with intuition...I'm a scientist. I need hard evidence'
says Ginny about herself with her frequently remarkable insight about faculties she doesn't seem to possess.
Vivien the vivacious sociable sister who escaped and has now returned but why?
The book is full of uncertainites and perhaps that's one aspect to pin down about a good novel. I was constantly questioning situations and assumptions because I'd only viewed them through Ginny's eyes and I wasn't altogether sure about Ginny. Ginny's eyes had seen things in Ginny's way, Vivienne would have been wearing a completely different set of spectacles and it is only very latterly that we are allowed to see through them, this gives a book double value as you write the other story yourself.
Ginny by the way is the first to admit her shortcomings.
'I know memory shouldn't be trusted, that two people's recall of the same event can be unbelievably different, that even their perceptions at the time can be paradoxical, so I accept that my own recollection may be heavily distorted.'
Reader sympathies waver all over the place, one minute poor Ginny, the next flashes of sadism in the name of scientific research as moths are trapped and pulled apart at the seams. Is she mad, bad and extremely dangerous? Is she deluded and psychotic or completely in possession of her faculties?
The ending reveals all and it's good. Very good.
Another reason not to miss The Behaviour of Moths is to find how best to capture twenty-five thousand virgin Brimstones, because you never know when you might need them, and the recipe is a tricky treacle mix of wine, fermented banana and rum that will take some practice to get right.