"The Behaviour of Moths" has airs of "Grey Gardens", "Sunset Boulevard", "Great Expectations" and various other stories of batty old recluses living in rotting mansions, but it is a very original tale. The narrator, Virginia (Ginny) is a very unreliable one - she sees the world differently to everyone else and doesn't always see the obvious. Although she claims to be an expert on moths, she's clearly not because she makes many mistakes in the science she mentions (I prefer to think of these mistakes as mistakes on Ginny's part, not mistakes on the author's part). Ginny's very safe, secure world, rattling around in her family home, is rocked by the return of her younger sister (Vivian) after almost 50 years.
The narrative flashes back and forth between the present day and the 1950s as we learn the history of the family and how Ginny came to live alone. As homet-truths start to be revealed by Vivian, Ginny has to face facts that her version of events isn't the same as everyone elses.
The book is wonderfully written in a lovely, evocative style and the characterisation of Ginny (who is about 70) is almost childlike, but then she has never really grown up and does live in the past, which suits her perfectly. Ginny is obsessive with respect to time and order and routine and her characterisations are very well researched. She describes her scientific work in minute details but this is full of errors (chemicals that don't exist, mechanisms of poison action that are wrong), probably due to Ginny's delusions of being an expert when she's really not one.
I do hope for a sequal - or prequal - or at least more books from Poppy Adams. This one was wonderful.
on 19 October 2011
Ginny and Vivi were close as sisters but then at 15 Vivi left and didn't come home for 47 years. Home, is Bulburrow Court, a grand country pile which Ginny has not left in all those years. But now, Vivi has returned and some family secrets are unearthed.
It is never said but Ginny, unreliable narrator par excellence, is clearly on the Autism Spectrum, and her funny quirks and ways of being caused her family, in particular her father Clive to cosset her from the realities of life. Clive himself, I suspect was like Ginny, and both were obsessed by moths. Each of them turned their obsession to quite successful academic careers at the expense of their family. Maud, Ginny and Vivi's glamorous mother, slowly descends into alcoholism shortly after Vivi leaves home and takes her loneliness and anger out on poor Ginny. Ginny struggles to hide the alcoholism from her father and the bruises she gains at the hands of her mother. Then her mother dies and tensions between Ginny and Clive and Vivi are strained beyond repair.
47 years later and Vivi has returned to Bulburrow Court. She wants Ginny to know the truth while Ginny herself hides secrets from Vivi.
I felt almost suffocated by Vivi and Maud's treatment of Ginny. Ginny is an entirely likeable, even lovable character. Yes, she is very frustrating but she is happy. After a lifetime of being at the whim of others (alcoholic Maud, selfish Vivi, Clive who pushes her into taking over his rein) she is happy: happy with her cosseted life at Bulburrow, happy with her routine, happy with her solitary confinement and my shackles really raised at the behavior of Vivi. We don't know the truth and to be honest, like Ginny, I didn't want to know the truth, or for Ginny to be force-fed some home truths.
This really was a fantastic read, even the scientific bits about moths. I was gripped by Ginny's narrative. Of course it has some gothic flavourings: grand house, orphaned children, family secrets...but it's more than that too. It reminded me very much of the sisters' tale in Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived In The Castle. I'll be watching out for Poppy Adam's next book.
Like an earlier reviewer (Sarah Wray), I thought this novel was `pretty good': definitely above average, I'd give it 3.5 stars if that were a possible option. The funny thing is, though, it's right up my street with its unreliable narrator, atmospheric environment, slow burn and gothic elements. I therefore expected to be enthralled, but I was simply interested.
Somehow it felt a little contrived; a little too claustrophobic. I longed for use of the third person to give more insight and bring in more characters, to deliver a touch more `plot', I suppose.
I realise that this would have altered the story, shedding too much light on what was going on. The challenge was to live in the narrator's perspective but to try to work out, from clues, what was `fact'; what was her assumption; what, if anything, was actually objective. There's nothing wrong with that, I enjoy that sort of challenge, but this didn't hold my attention as strongly as Sarah Waters' fantastic new novel `The Little Stranger', which is not dissimilar in its style and tone. Maybe I've just read too many first person narrator novels all in a bunch and am feeling slightly jaded.
I suspect I'm being too critical: this is still an enjoyable and intelligent read and the characterisation is intriguing. I liked the fact that the two key characters (the narrator and her sister) are elderly women, both quirky and individual. Older women don't often get to hog a story and neither do insects. Here they combine to share the limelight!
Do read it and see what you think.
My librarian recommended this book to me after I told her how much I had enjoyed Sarah Water's The Little Stranger. She said that it had the same kind of menacing appeal, and she was right. Telling the complex and intertwined life stories of two sisters, from the point of view of the elder sister, now in her seventies and a virtual lock in, in a crumbling mansion, disturbed from her routines by the sudden arrival of the sibling she hasn't seen for over forty years, this is a masterpiece of creeping tension and hostility. The joy is in the way Adams builds up the claustrophobic atmosphere, layering the sense of mystery so you as the reader are never quite sure what is going on, what is truth and what is smoke and mirrors, this is old fashioned in the best sense, and truly creepy. I loved it.
on 22 July 2009
I had to think long and hard after finishing this intriguing novel, laden with atmosphere, mystery, suspense, moths and family secrets.
The story is narrated by Ginny, one of two estranged sisters, with vastly different recollections of their childhood and early adulthood 50 years past. The conflict between the two sisters accounts of their childhoods is never satisfyingly or conclusively resolved, so if like me, you like resolution this may not be the book for you.
That said, the central character Ginny, provides an entertaining narrative from her potentially autistic (like so many other matters this is alluded to though never confirmed) though clearly emotionally impaired perspective. Unlike some other reviewers I found her a likeable albeit clearly flawed individual. Her sister, on the other hand, I found jarring in the same manner Ginny experienced - which is perhaps indicative of the quality of the writing. Whilst Ginny may not be the most reliable narrator there is little evidence to suggest little sister Vivi can be trusted to a greater extent.
Perspective is everything to this novel. The lack of a definitive resolution ensures that you're left to draw your own conclusions from the minds of two dysfunctional characters.
on 5 April 2011
This is a chilling slice of modern gothic. The narrator is consumed with the unspoken desire not to exist, to leave no mark or trace. Which might be possible for many people - it's easy enough to be ignored - but that she happens to live in a crumbling mansion. Her self-effacement is bleak and upsetting at times; the word `Aspergers' popped into my mind early on the book, as she is clearly exceptionally intelligent and yet has great difficulty understanding emotions, or emotional motivations, but no easy `labels' are applied. This is certainly for the better; it makes it a vivid portrayal of attitudes to `disability' or `difference' a generation or so ago. She has clearly been through extensive psychological testing in her childhood, but all she can remember of this is that the doctor came to play card games with her that her sister was not allowed to join in; that they were all about guessing what someone in a picture was feeling, and they were a bit boring.
There are intense ironies here. Everyone in the family had to protect and shelter her, it seems, and yet it was she who nursed her alcoholic mother and bore her drunken rages - no one protected her from that, and her sister went on to take a kind of advantage of her passivity that is genuinely shocking. I thought at times of "I capture the castle" in terms of the family dynamics as an influence; in the conversation between the sisters, with their differing interpretations of the past I couldn't help seeing in my mind that amazingly-lit 1940s film "The Spiral Staircase". At the very end of the novel, however the psychodrama tips over into melodrama, and the conclusion is a boring cliché that's been done dozens of times before. A shame, but it's still a compelling book.
on 3 November 2009
I loved this book! For me it was a totally absorbing window into someone with Asperger's syndrome and completely convincing - reminded me of The Curious incident of the dog in the night-time. Beautifully written.
on 24 May 2008
If you enjoyed Ian McKewan; Saturday and Enduring Love, Sebastian Faulks; Engleby and Birdsong, The Behaviour of Moths will delight you.
From the first page I was hooked. Poppy Adams' seemingly effortless writing style sucks you in and keeps you transfixed until the very last line.
Told from the perspective of a 'misfit' whose voice becomes so familiar that you begin to wonder who the 'misfits' really are within this strange family group. I personally, could not wait to get to bed each night to read this book and was determined to find what else Poppy Adams had written. Sadly, it appears, her next book isn't out until June this year - can't wait.
Quality and inspired writing, a book I will re-read.
on 31 January 2009
This book gets off to a slow start but do stick with it because you'll get more and more intrigued by these two sisters, reunited after 47 years apart ... Ginny, the reclusive moth expert and unreliable narrator is clearly somewhere on the autistic spectrum; but what drove her sister Vivien to stay away from the crumbling mansion that was the family home? Poppy Adams draws you into their past as if she's spinning a cocoon around you ... this book is so skilfully structured it's hard to believe that it's a first novel.
What a beautiful cover, too - for once (so rare these days) a book that's a pleasure to hold. (The hardback, that is, the forthcoming paperback looks very ordinary.)
on 9 January 2009
A beautifully judged novel. A little slow to get started but after about 20 pages, it rolls along at a lovely pace. The central conceit of the moth expert being shaped by events, just like the moths she studies, and the house as cocoon is maintained evenly, never heavy-handedly. Mixture of domestics v. scientific info also well-judged. You learn a lot about lepidoptery but and are never bored by the insights. Ending wasn't what I was expecting (unlike the clever clogs who's given a poor rating!). I won't spoil it but the metaphor is continued to the point where she breaks free of her past. A pity Arthur fades out of the story, but you can't have it all. I recommend this book without hesitation for anyone who likes books that are literary but readable.
[If you ever get to read these reviews, Poppy, please, please for future reprints (of which there deserve to be many!)correct the clanger where Ginny says metamorphosize (aargh!) when she means metamorphose. Such typos don't normally matter much, but in this case it breaks the spell because an articulate, autistic expert in the subject would never make that mistake!]