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Take two estranged sisters, reunited after 47 years and of course things aren't going to be comfortable and breezy. Put them in the stately home they grew up in, which is now a dilapidated mansion that one sister has stayed in all this time, and you know someone is hiding something - if not both of them. Poppy Adams begins her novel "The Behaviour of Moths" with older sister Virginia (known as Ginny) nervously waiting for Vivien's long awaited arrival, and already you can see this visit isn't going to be a loving and joyful reunion.
The cover boasts that this book can be described as Mark Haddon meets Barbara Trapido. Now, knowing Haddon's most famous book immediately makes one realize that there is someone in this story that has some kind of mental disturbance. Trapido is known for the comic relief in her books. This combination works well to describe this book, except that I didn't find all that much of this book to be funny. In fact, with the exception of a couple of smiles here and there, I wouldn't call this book very amusing at all. But that's not really to this book's detriment.
Certainly from the title you can imagine that this story is going to be unusual. In fact, as we know that moths become animate after sundown, the immediate metaphor comes through. Certainly, the darkness of this novel is what prevails here. Together with that, we can imagine that we will find a creature that is drawn to the light, even if that same light could mean its destruction. Adams' uses this metaphor to the hilt here, while also including the residual metaphors of how moths can slowly destroy old fabrics, and their frantic erratic movements. For instance, as the book opens we find Ginny both nervous and upset that her baby sister Vivi (as she calls her) is 20 minutes late. As her mind flits from watching for her sister to thoughts of her childhood and her breath on the window, we can already see that this narrator isn't going to give us a story that unfolds with ease.
Vivi too is included in the metaphor. She is the light that Ginny is both drawn to and fears. Throughout the story we see Ginny's attempts to become closer to Vivi while at the same time almost fearing her. Ginny flits between these two attitudes as quickly as she does between her deep admiration of her father's work studying moths, and the fraying of the family fabric that this caused. She is meticulous in describing all she learned about moths from her father, but we also find that there are holes in her memories of her family's relationships. The question here is can Vivi mend what is left, or is it time to say it is beyond all fixing?
Adams builds these two characters as carefully as a caterpillar builds its cocoon - strand by strand until the whole shape comes together. This doesn't make for a fast-paced story, which in this instance, is to its credit. This is because she is also hiding a surprise that has been hidden within, which she layers throughout the book. In this, Adams brings us a mystery that seems to grow, take shape and come to life much like watching this caterpillar's metamorphosis. And as Ginny notes, you can never tell from looking at the cocoon what kind of moth (a good one or an evil one) will come out of the cocoon until it breaks through. Here again, we see how Adams uses this metaphor regarding the sisters and their feelings regarding what kind of person they perceive the other to be verses what they really are.
With all this, one would wonder why I didn't give this book a full five stars. The fact is that the idea and the plot development here are excellently conceived. However, there were a few things that endeared me less to this book. First of all, although Ms Adams did her homework about moths to perfection, the passages that describe these creatures and how Ginny and her father slaved away at this hobby were a bit tedious. Mind you, Ginny is a tedious character and that fit, but I could have done with a few less of these passages. This is probably why I found this a bit slow going, as a whole. I believe the plot could easily have been picked up by streamlining some of the narration. I also found that Vivi's actions didn't always make sense, and there were many times when I was unsure of why she did things. Finally, I am still unsure how the ending of this book left me feeling. On the one hand, I prefer a book that ends with you needing to think about it. On the other hand, I got the impression that some things left unanswered, really should have been given a conclusion here.
As a whole, I cannot say that I wouldn't recommend this book. Certainly the metaphors here are marvelously developed and the main character of Ginny is both vivid and an excellent example of how to use this literary mechanic. Since this is a debut novel, admittedly what has been accomplished here is very promising, despite the drawbacks. Adams' writing style is crisp and clear, which has been interspersed with just the right amount of imagery to imbue it with a gothic mood that mirrors the home where this story takes place. With all this, I can give this book four out of five stars and I certainly would want to see Adams next work, since this is an excellent beginning.
Davida Chazan © August, 2011
I was surprised to see that in the USA this book got a title name change to "The Sister", which I think defeats the purpose of the original title.
This book was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award in 2008, as well as read on BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime.
This book is available to purchase new from Amazon for £4.75 (paperback) or through their marketplace from £0.01.
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd; Reprint edition (2 July 2009)
Review of 'The Behaviour of Moths', a novel by Poppy Adams
I am reviewing the hardback version of the book, 320 pages, ISBN 1844084868, cover price £12.99, published by Virago Press Ltd.
==About the Book==
On a recent visit to my local library, I picked up a copy of this novel as the title intrigued me. The cover also caught my eye, a 3D effect of moth silhouettes, shaped into flower-like geometric shapes. Perhaps these are not the best reasons for selecting a novel, but having now read the book, my first instincts were correct and this was a cracker of a novel.
The plot is set over a long weekend. On a Friday afternoon, elderly lepidopterist Ginny (Virginia) Stone is sitting in the window of her crumbling, dilapidated home awaiting the arrival of her younger sister Vivi (Vivien). Vivi has not set foot in the family home for 47 years and Ginny is bemused and uneasy about Vivi's reasons for wanting to return to live in the mouldering mansion house that has been in their family for generations and was the foundation of an idyllic childhood.
When Vivi arrives, she brings with her an air of disorganisation which upsets and confuses the shy and retiring Ginny. Ginny had learned to love her work with moths at the knee of her late father, Clive and as she grew up, she had joined him in his work of studying the biological and neurological make up of moths. Clive and his wife, Maud, had inherited the house from Maud's family who were also moth enthusiasts, and the attics of the large rambling house were filled with the collections of moths from decades past. Ginny had remained in the house alone after her mother's untimely death and her father's subsequent decline into dementia and carried on with her research.
Vivi on the other hand had escaped the confines of rural Dorset and built a new life for herself in London, never returning after their mother's accident. Dorset held some bitter memories for Vivi, as an eight year old girl, she fell from the houses' bell tower and was impaled on the remains of metal railings dismantled for the war effort. The metal spike had pierced her abdomen and at a tender age, she had had to undergo a complete hysterectomy to repair internal damage.
As the weekend progresses we learn through Ginny's memories of the dysfunctional family that she and Vivi grew up in, an eccentric, highly intellectual, but moth obsessed father and an elegant, attractive mother who would turn to alcohol in a big way, as she grew more and more discontent with life.
Ginny had become reclusive and worryingly strange as time had passed. Her home was falling down around her ears and she had simply locked up rooms as they became uninhabitable, first selling to a 'cowboy' antique dealer any furniture that offended her. Consequently, Vivi's arrival and announcement that she intended to live with Ginny so that they can care for each other in their old age, throws Ginny into a whirlwind of emotions and memories of long ago. The house becomes claustrophobic and frankly eerie as Ginny creeps around trying to find out what Vivi is really up to. Dark memories of the past come back to haunt her and cause her even more mental torment as sibling rivalry rears it's head between the sisters. Each sister feels that the other was treated differently, old wounds are re-opened and layer by layer their innermost feelings and fears are revealed.
The plot thickens and it isn't until the final pages and the Tuesday after Vivi's arrival, that the climax of Ginny's fears are reached.
More I will not say for fear of spoiling this remarkable plot for future readers!
==Availability and Cost==
The copy I read is a library book and bears the jacket price of £12.99.
The Behaviour of Moths can be bought online from various sites. A quick web search today brought up the following stockists and prices:-
Naturally I cannot guarantee that these prices will be relevant on other dates!
==*About the Author==
The Behaviour of Moths is the début novel of Poppy Adams and the novel was short-listed for the 'Costa First Novel Award'.
Poppy Adams is a documentary director and producer, she has made films for the BBC, Channel 4 and The Discovery Channel. She has a degree in Natural Sciences from Durham University. She lives in London with her husband and three children.
*My source for the above information was the website of Poppy Adams' literary agent, Greene & Heaton. www.greeneheaton.co.uk
==My Thoughts and Conclusion==
The Behaviour of Moths is a strange novel, it is hard to actually classify the genre of the story, it isn't strictly a mystery or a crime novel, although there is an element of these in the book. Neither is it a family saga or a thriller, again these elements also appear. I would class The Behaviour of moths, simply as 'fiction'!
Very good fiction at that, with strong characters and a well crafted plot. The plot throws up some surprises along the way along with some morbidly fascinating descriptions of the dissection of moth pupae, larvae and the methods used in the capture of the insects. At times, the lepidoptery aspect of the book becomes a little too involved and threatens to overtake the plot, I can imagine some readers would be tempted to skip over them. I personally read every word, not because I have any great interest in moths, but it was all new to me and as such, I found it completely absorbing. I have to admit that I learned a great deal about the physical make up, reproduction and life processes of moths through reading this novel!
The plot is rather dark and I found that my first assumptions on the characters were called into question, the psychological twists keep you turning the pages. The author has very cleverly written a novel that makes you ponder over the characters motives and keeps you guessing right to the end. I am a little embarrassed to admit that I started this book at 8 in the morning, read until lunch time and then finished it this evening!
I would recommend this novel to others, it is unusual, absorbing and a cracking paced story.
Thank you for reading.
©brittle1906 January 2010
N.B. My reviews may be found on other review sites under the same user name.
This is the intriguing story of two elderly sisters reunited after nearly fifty years apart. Ginny the elder sister is the narrator of the tale and still lives in the house where she and Vivi, the younger sister, both grew up. Whilst the story only covers a few days, through Ginny's memories and the sisters' conversations we start to piece together some of the past half century. We soon begin to realise that, as is often the way in life, appearances can be deceptive.
Ginny has inherited her father's fascination for moths and was in the past a highly respected lepidopterist. Later in life she has become somewhat eccentric living in social isolation in a crumbling gothic-style mansion, rarely venturing into the world outside. Her life is methodical and routined to the point of obsession but this is blown apart by the arrival of Vivi who announces, without explanation, that she will be moving in so the sisters could live out their old age together. This brings both memories and bitterness exploding into Ginny's ordered world as, one by one, deep and dark secrets are unearthed.
Over the years Ginny has been selling off the family furniture and closing down rooms in the house until she lives in only a few rooms, with only the attic left untouched. It is the attic that contains the extensive collection of pinned and preserved moths. Ginny becomes suspicious of Vivi's motives for returning and as the story progressed the reader begins to share these suspicions.
We soon realise the sisters see their pasts in distinctly different ways and these differences become crucial as we gradually realise that Ginny, as the story teller, cannot necessarily be trusted to provide an accurate version of events.
We gradually learn about the sisters childhood; Vivi's move at a young age to London and a baby. Memories come flooding back of their mother Maud's decline into alcoholism with violent outbursts and Ginny's naive attempts to hide this from the rest of the family. Following their mothers sudden death their father, Clive, abruptly ends his lifelong lepidoptery partnership with Ginny as he books himself into a nursing home with early signs of dementia. Vivi remembers things rather differently and this brings the story to a climatic ending when Ginny realises how wrong her memories of past events have been. Her scientific mind turns to a practical solution.
This is a mystery tale of sibling rivalries and loyalties, of trust that turns into betrayal and a family which ultimately destroys itself. There is a sinister undertone which throughout keeps the reader guessing. But for me there was a sense of frustration at some questions being left unanswered. For example why do their sisters refer to their parents as "Maud and Clive" rather than simply "Mum and Dad"? Nevertheless the authors guessing game is fun, just as you think you have worked something out there is a subtle change to the plot and you have to think again.
This is a good début novel from Poppy Adams and it will probably come as no surprise to learn she is a documentary filmmaker with a degree in Natural Sciences. I did at times feel a bit bogged down by the depth of scientific information about the capture, study and preserving of moths. But gradually we are lead to draw analogies between the behaviour of moths and that of the sisters, for example free will and self-awareness. At times the sisters seem to instinctively know what each other are thinking but at other times their relationship is awkward and distant. How much is nature and how much is nurture? There were moments I could have been tempted to skim over some of the technicalities of lepidoptery but I'm glad I resisted that urge as this is a great tale, with some surprising twists, that leaves you thinking about the characters long after you have finished the book.
The hardback book has a cover price of £12.99 but is currently available from Amazon for £12.34.
First published by Virago Press in May 2008, there are 308 pages of reading.
©perfectly-p 2008 (aka perfectlypolished)
This review has also been posted at thebookbag.