The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams

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The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Linda Rutledge
Reviewed by Linda Rutledge
Summary: A cleverly written début novel exploring of the relationship between two sisters separated for almost fifty years. With two strong female characters, a twisting and at times surprising plot, we discover that appearances can be deceptive.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-1844084869

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This is the intriguing story of two elderly sisters reunited after nearly fifty years apart. Ginny the elder sister is the narrator of the tale and still lives in the house where she and Vivi, the younger sister, both grew up. Whilst the story only covers a few days, through Ginny's memories and the sisters' conversations we start to piece together some of the past half century. We soon begin to realise that, as is often the way in life, appearances can be deceptive.

Ginny has inherited her father's fascination with moths and was in the past a highly respected lepidopterist. Later in life she has become somewhat eccentric living in social isolation in a crumbling gothic-style mansion, rarely venturing into the world outside. Her life is methodical and routined to the point of obsession but this is blown apart by the arrival of Vivi who announces, without explanation, that she will be moving in so the sisters can live out their old age together. This brings both memories and bitterness exploding into Ginny's ordered world as, one by one, deep and dark secrets are unearthed.

Over the years Ginny has been selling off the family furniture and closing down rooms in the house until she lives in only a few rooms, with only the attic left untouched. It is the attic that contains the extensive collection of pinned and preserved moths. Ginny becomes suspicious of Vivi's motives for returning and as the story progressed the reader begins to share these suspicions.

We soon realise the sisters see their pasts in distinctly different ways and these differences become crucial as we gradually realise that Ginny, as the story teller, cannot necessarily be trusted to provide an accurate version of events.

We learn about the sisters' childhood; Vivi's move at a young age to London and a baby. Memories come flooding back of their mother Maud's decline into alcoholism with violent outbursts and Ginny's naive attempts to hide this from the rest of the family. Following their mother's sudden death their father, Clive, abruptly ends his lifelong lepidoptery partnership with Ginny as he books himself into a nursing home with early signs of dementia. Vivi remembers things rather differently and this brings the story to a climactic ending when Ginny realises how wrong her memories of past events have been. Her scientific mind turns to a practical solution.

This is a mystery tale of sibling rivalries and loyalties, of trust that turns into betrayal and a family which ultimately destroys itself. There is a sinister undertone which throughout keeps the reader guessing. But for me there was a sense of frustration at some questions being left unanswered. For example why do their sisters refer to their parents as Maud and Clive rather than simply Mum and Dad? Nevertheless the author's guessing game is fun, just as you think you have worked something out there is a subtle change to the plot and you have to think again.

This is a good début novel from Poppy Adams and it will probably come as no surprise to learn she is a documentary film maker with a degree in Natural Sciences. I did at times feel a bit bogged down by the depth of scientific information about the capture, study and preserving of moths. But gradually we are lead to draw analogies between the behaviour of moths and that of the sisters, for example free will and self-awareness. At times the sisters seem to instinctively know what each other is thinking but at other times their relationship is awkward and distant. How much is nature and how much is nurture? There were moments I could have been tempted to skim over some of the technicalities of lepidoptery but I'm glad I resisted that urge as this is a great tale, with some surprising twists, that leaves you thinking about the characters long after you have finished the book.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.

Booklists.jpg The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams is in the Costa Book Awards 2008.

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