The Moth Diaries takes the form of a journal kept by a sixteen year old girl, whose name we never know, while she is studying at an exclusive school. Initially the journal is taken up with the usual thoughts and fears of teenage life: the reading lists for her English class (heavy on the Gothic, the vampire-laden and the macabre); her friendships with the other girls and with one, Lucy Blake, in particular; her sense of not quite belonging because of her Jewishness and her hopes for the future. What rather upsets the gentle nature of her observations, however, is the arrival in the school of a new girl, Ernessa Block. Ernessa is somehow aloof from the other girls, a figure who inspires admiration in many due to the manner in which she seems able to bend the school rules without ever getting into trouble and fear in others because of her intelligence and her ability to discern the thoughts and desires of those around her. Also, from our narrator's point of view, Ernessa spells trouble because Lucy, having previously been inseperable from her, now seems to find Ernessa much more interesting.
What I loved about The Moth Diaries - and I genuinely did love it - was the fashion in which the tension escalates one notch at a time. Secrets creep from the woodwork. Both Ernessa and the narrator have fathers who took their own lives. Ernessa, according to the narrator although no-one else ever comments, never seems to eat anything. The narrator claims to be giving up her dabbling with illicit substances in one journal entry only to declare that she has never been so stoned in her life in the next. Nothing is quite what it seems and the narrator's observations although spot on in many instances seem to go dangerously, almost insanely out of kilter when it comes to Ernessa. Passions become more heated, Lucy becomes ill, bizarre and macabre tragedies occur and the narrator, but nobody else, sees Ernessa behind it all.
The Moth Diaries contains a definite echo of Henry James's 'The Turn of the Screw' in the sense that the narrator is clearly unreliable, although not necessarily always wrong. There's also a hint of Donna Tartt's 'The Secret History' in the portrayal of an enclosed, elite college in which the study of esoteric subjects leads to over-heated imaginations. The school itself with its narrow corridors, its gabled rooftops and its rather sinister basement is beautifully portrayed and serves as a haunting backdrop but, ultimately, the book comes down to character: the narrator, who may or may not be teetering on the brink of a mental abyss, Lucy and Ernessa and the relationships that exist between them.
I loved this book. It has a beautiful, fragile and elusive quality - rather like the moths the narrator and her father used to watch in the night. It doesn't have the subtlty of 'The Turn of the Screw' but perhaps what it occasionally lacks in enigma it compensates for in direct shocks (what does the narrator see when she creeps along the guttering at night in order to peer inside Ernessa's window?). Gorgeous, swirling, haunting and mysterious. A terrific novel and an author to watch.