This was May’s V&A Book Club choice. I was looking forward to it, as I do enjoy a bit of gothic suspense, and this promised to have lashings of both from the blurb on the back cover, plus it offered the opportunity to learn about the art of lepidopterists, or people who study moths, to you and me, which you don’t get the chance to do every day.
It started promisingly. Set in a tumble down Victorian mansion deep in the Dorset countryside, the novel opens with Ginny, the narrator, standing at the window of the only home she has ever known, waiting for the sister she hasn’t seen for forty odd years to arrive. Ginny is now elderly, and hasn’t left the house for several decades. She is of sound mind, or so we assume from her perfectly normal narration, and this reluctance to be part of the local community or to leave the safety of the mansion’s crumbling walls can reasonably be put down to some form of eccentricity, or social phobia. What cannot be so easily explained is why Ginny’s younger sister Vivi is returning after so long. No cataclysmic event seems to have taken place, and Ginny offers no explanation as to what can have compelled Vivi to want to come back. Indeed, Ginny doesn’t even seem to know. Vivi’s impending arrival prompts a reverie from Ginny of their idyllic childhood at Bulborrow Court, a once fine Victorian folly originally owned by their beautiful, vivacious mother Maud’s family. A clan of typical Victorians, one of their greatest passions was moth collecting, and it was this collection their shy and retiring lepidopterist father Clive had come to study when he first set eyes on Maud. This match of wild opposites was one of deep love and tenderness, and spawned two children as diametrically opposed in personality as their parents; the shy and awkward Virginia, and the outgoing, fearless Vivian.
Ginny and Vivi, as they have always been known, were inseparable throughout childhood. Unusually, Ginny was the adoring follower of her bold, popular sister, whose affection she desperately sought. Nothing counted for Ginny unless Vivi was there to share it with her, and even as a child, she was aware of her deficiency and her mother’s lack of connection with her in comparison to her vibrant, clever and witty sister. When they are young there is a terrible accident involving Vivi falling from a disused tower in the grounds of the house, and as a result, she loses her reproductive organs (yes, very symbolic). From then on the balance in the family changes, as it appears Maud believes it was no accident, and that Ginny pushed her sister. The girls are sent to school, and there their personalities become even more marked, with Ginny always being singled out as odd and Vivi always being surrounded by a group of friends, enchanted by her. After school Vivi leaves for London, to live a life more exciting than Bulborrow Court can offer, and Ginny unquestioningly stays behind to take on the role of her father’s apprentice.
Much then follows that would spoil the plot if I told you about it, and then Something Shocking happens that totally changes the way the book is (I presume) supposed to be read and then The End, with no explanations offered for anything. It started well enough, setting the stage for an intriguing and darkly plotted story of sibling rivalry and skeletons in closets, but somewhere around the middle it all begins to go wrong. There are too many red herrings thrown carelessly into the pot, too many loose ends and far too many possible lines of interpretation. Characters do things that are wholly out of line with their portrayed personalities, and ‘secrets’ and ‘lies’ that are unveiled are about as hard to see coming as a penguin in a day glo jacket walking down Oxford Street. Unpicking the plot at Book Club, we could only come to a satisfactory conclusion of why what happened happened if we took wild guesses as to the reasons why certain elements of the story had been included, and you should never have to do that with a book, I think. I don’t mind a few loose ends, and an ending that is open to interpretation, but the problem with The Behaviour of Moths is that there is too much room for interpretation, as nothing is really explained and characters aren’t developed well enough for you to read into their behaviour with any degree of certainty.
I raced through it; it is a suspenseful page turner, I have to admit, but then when I reached the end I felt completely unsatisfied and really quite annoyed with it. It was lazily plotted, in my opinion; a good gothic novel contains many veins of possible inquiry but they are all cleverly tied together, leaving the reader with several eureka! moments by the end and, on occasion, the odd loose end that leaves you wondering or guessing when you close the pages, which is perfectly acceptable and actually quite enjoyable. It enables the story to stay alive in your mind for a while after you’ve stopped reading, as you continue to puzzle over the events that unfolded. The great Sensation writers like Wilkie Collins know how to do this well. Poppy Adams doesn’t. In her attempt to weave a story that leaves the reader guessing, she just creates massive plot holes that can only be plugged by extravagant surmising. I know Ginny is supposed to be an unreliable narrator, but it really is no fun at all when a novel leaves all the available conclusions to be drawn by the reader, as no satisfaction can be drawn from such an uncertain outcome. In short, I was highly disappointed, and even after pulling apart the story with my fellow Book Club members, I’m still unconvinced by the events that unfolded. With a few tweaks here and there, this would have been a much better book, but for me, as it was, it just didn’t come up to scratch I’m afraid. I’ll be sticking with the original Sensation novels in future!