Book Review of “The Behaviour Of Moths” (aka “The Sister”) by Poppy Adams.
Take two estranged sisters, reunited after 47 years and of course, things aren’t going to be comfortable and breezy. Put them in the stately home they grew up in, which is now a dilapidated mansion that one sister has stayed in all this time, and you know someone is hiding something – if not both of them. Poppy Adams begins her novel with the older sister Virginia (known as Ginny) nervously waiting for Vivien’s long awaited arrival, and already you can see this visit isn’t going to be a loving and joyful reunion.
From the title you can already imagine that this story is going to be unusual. In fact, as we know that moths become animate after sundown, the immediate metaphor comes through. Certainly, the darkness of this novel is what prevails here. Together with that, we can imagine that we will find a creature drawn to the light, even if that means its destruction. Adams’ uses this metaphor to the hilt, while also including the residual metaphors of the destructive nature of moths, and their frantic erratic movements. For instance, as the book opens we find Ginny both nervous and upset because her baby sister Vivi (as she calls her) is 20 minutes late. Her mind flits from watching for her sister, to thoughts of their childhood to her fascination with her breath clouding the window. With this, we can already see that our narrator isn’t going to give us a story that unfolds with ease.
Vivi too is included in the metaphor. She is the light that Ginny wants and fears. Throughout the story, we see Ginny’s attempts to become closer to Vivi while at the same time almost fearing her. Ginny darts between these two attitudes as quickly as she does between her deep admiration of their father’s work studying moths, and the fraying of the family fabric this caused. She is meticulous in describing all she learned about moths from her father, but we also find there are holes in her memories of her family’s relationships. The question here is can Vivi mend what is left, or is it time to say it is beyond all fixing?
Adams builds these two characters as carefully as a caterpillar builds its cocoon – strand by strand until the whole shape comes together. This doesn’t make for a fast-paced story, which is to its credit. This is because she is also hiding a surprise hidden within, which she layers throughout the book. In this, Adams brings us a mystery that seems to grow, take shape and come to life much like watching this caterpillar’s metamorphosis. As Ginny notes, you can never tell from looking at the cocoon what kind of moth (a good one or an evil one) will come out until it breaks through. Here again, we see how Adams uses this metaphor regarding the sisters and their feelings regarding what kind of person they perceive the other to be verses what they really are.
With all this, one would wonder why I didn’t give this book a full five stars. On the one hand, Adams excellently conceives the idea and plot development. However, there were several things less endearing in this book. First, although Adams did her homework about moths to perfection, she put a bit too much of this into the book. The passages describing these creatures and Ginny’s and her father’s slaving away at this hobby were a bit tedious. While Ginny is a tedious character, I could have done with less detail. This is probably why this book feels slow, as a whole, and the plot needed some streamlining. I also found Vivi’s actions didn’t always make sense. Finally, I am still unsure how the ending of this book left me feeling. While I prefer a book that ends with you needing to think about it, I got the impression that some things left unanswered, really needed a conclusion here.
Since this is a debut novel, admittedly what has been accomplished here is very promising, despite the drawbacks. Certainly the metaphors here are marvelously developed and the main character of Ginny is both vivid and an excellent example of how to use this literary mechanic. Adams’ writing style is crisp and clear, which has been interspersed with just the right amount of imagery to imbue it with a Gothic mood that mirrors the home where this story takes place. With all this, I feel confident in recommending this book and giving it a solid four out of five stars. I look forward to reading more from Adams in the future.
“Behaviour of Moths” by Poppy Adams was first published in the UK, and released in the US under the name “The Sister,” which is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), the website eBook.com, iTunes (in iBook or audiobook form), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (promoting libraries and literacy worldwide), or from an IndieBound store near you.