Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams

I actually finished The Behaviour of Moths just before my computer broke six weeks ago, but I really enjoyed this book so I still want to write about it. Unfortunately, the book itself has had to go back to the library, so this is all being done from memory!

It's a family saga, told solely through the narration of Ginny Stone, a seventy year old woman, who has lived her life alone and reclusive in her old family home, although she only uses a very small portion of the large, crumbling house, closing the rest of it down. At the start of the book, she is awaiting the arrival of her elder sister, Vivi, who escaped country living and made a new life for herself in London, rarely returning to the family home. Told over the course of five days, the story focuses more on the events in the past that led to the estrangement of the two sisters and the different lives they have led during their time apart.

When Vivi left for London, married and lived a busy, socialite life, Ginny remained with her family, taking care of and suffering abuse from her alcoholic mother and assisting and then continuing her father's work with the advancement of the understanding of moths. We actually learn very little about Vivi's life though, because all the narration is from Ginny, and the sisters don't talk much about their lives apart. We know she married and had a baby, but we only know this because Ginny was involved and so it forms part of her memories. However as the book progresses, the fact that we only ever get to hear events from Ginny's perspective becomes a real issue, and the crux of the story. Throughout the novel, it is clear that Ginny is slightly off balance, although it is ever made clear exactly how much. There are constant references to visits from a 'Dr Moyse' when she as a child, a social worker trying to contact her as an adult, her obsessive compulsive behaviour, particularly towards time and tea, and just a general feeling that she does not see the world in the same way as other people, or process information in the same way. It is made clear that Ginny likes order and routine in her life, and this is stressed both through her behaviour in her day to day life, and her descriptions of moths, and how they will do what they are expected to do. They are predictable and will never go off on a tangent and do something unexpected to throw the routine.

It is what is not said in this book that has more impact than what is. Towards the end, when it becomes clear that Ginny and Vivi have a very different perspective on what happened to their mother, at first I thought that that was simply Ginny having a false memory because of her seeming mental disorder (whatever this is). But as I think about it, I started to realise that we are not hearing Vivi's actual opinion at all, just Vivi's opinion filtered through Ginny's perception of truth, which in this book is a very different thing. And then it all ends, rather abruptly and ambiguously, but that just fits the whole tone of the book. Knowledge that is questionable, because it all comes from an extremely unreliable narrator, so in effect, we are left to make our own minds up what happened, both at the end, and throughout the women's lives.

As I said at the start, I really loved his book. But then I do like ambiguity. It's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces are all there throughout the story, they just need putting together. I think there are many different ways they could be put together to make a whole though! I don't very often feel the need to re-read a book so soon after reading it, but I think this is one that could benefit from a re-read in the near future, to see if my thoughts are any different when armed with all the information.


farmlanebooks said...

I loved this book, but the thing I liked most was the description of the moths. I didn't realise that moths could be so fascinating. I thought the story was quite good, but the moths made it stand out!
I'd be interested to hear what you think of it after a re-read.

Savidge Reads said...
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Anonymous said...

I will be reading this very soon and its one that I am really, really looking forward to! Great review!