Ever onwards, ever in - and onto The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams. Everyone else read this ages ago, I think, and indeed I had a review copy from Virago languishing on my shelves - but it wasn't until the novel was picked for my book group that I got around to reading it myself.
The Behaviour of Moths should have been a perfect novel for me - all about the tensions in families, Gothic houses, and an unreliable narrator: tick, tick, and tick. Ginny is a lepidopterist (moth expert, in case the title doesn't give the game away) still living in the old family mansion in her sixties. The novel centres around her younger sister's return home after 47 years - Vivien arrives, but there are all sorts of unanswered questions and secrets between the two, which the reader hopes to disentangle...
That's the novel in a nutshell - I won't elaborate, partly because there are reviews all over the internet where you can read about the plot; partly because not a huge amount happens. Instead, we are left to piece together the sisters' lives (and try to understand their parents, from the piecemeal information which emerges) as the narrative jumps back and forth from present day to their childhood and adolescence. One of the first recollections is when Vivi fell off the bell tower:
My heart leapt but Vivi must have lost her balance. I watched her trying to regain control of the toast that danced about, evading her grip like a bar of soap in the bath. For those slow seconds it seemed as if repossessing the toast was of utmost important to her and the fact that she was losing her balance didn't register. I've never forgotten the terror in her eyes, staring at me, replayed a thousand times since in my nightmares, as she realised she was falling.
The fall leaves Vivi unable to have children; another catalyst for the events which unfold. And so it ambles on, with secrets gradually becoming exposed, and the relationship between the sisters coming to light.
But I was unconvinced. And not just because it was set near Crewkerne, close by where I live in Somerset - which Adams claims is in Dorset, and has a bowling alley. No, it doesn't, Poppy, love! No, the reason I was unconvinced is because The Behaviour of Moths tries to do the unreliable narrator thing, but it all comes in a huge rush with a big twist towards the end. And then you wonder quite how we were supposed to read the rest of the novel - but there weren't enough clues laid down, and the picture isn't properly developed. All the details about moths are doubtless engaging, but they seem to have taken the place of a coherent narrative arc.
The Behaviour of Moths has done very well, and my lack of enthusiasm for the novel won't trouble Poppy Adams particularly, but I do wonder quite why it's been so popular. I found the whole thing... how shall I put it... quite bland. The blurb talks about 'Ginny's unforgettable voice', but that's the problem: it wasn't unforgettable, it was literary-fiction-by-numbers. The style is almost ubiquitous across novels of this type - and though there were Gothicky elements (especially in the depiction of the house) which impressed and set the novel a bit apart, for the most part The Behaviour of Moths was a common-or-garden specimen. Not a bad novel by any means, and passes the time adequately, but could have been so much better. I do look forward to seeing what Adams does next, but if she couldn't win me over with a novel which has all my favourite ingredients, then I don't hold out huge hope.
Simon S has started suggesting similar reads at the bottom of his reviews, and I love the idea - and asked him if he wouldn't mind me nabbing it! So from now on, I'll try and think of books which I think did similar things better - or, with positive reviews, do similar things equally well! And link to my thoughts on them, naturally...
Books to get Stuck into:
- Angela Young: Speaking of Love - family secrets and tense relationships are as subtle and engaging as they get in this wonderful novel
- Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle - the unreliable narrator and the Gothic house taken to a whole new level in this brilliantly addictive novel