Entitled The Behaviour of Moths in its UK edition, and published as The Sister in America, Poppy Addams’ debut novel is surely not everyone’s cup of tea.
The book is divided into four parts, tackling four different days, however during these four days, we re-live the most important memories of the life of Ginny Stone, who is now an old woman living alone in an enormous crumbling mansion in the Dorset countryside. Reclusive and sinister, Ginny is waiting for the arrival of her younger sister Vivien at the beginning of the novel, whom she has not seen in almost fifty years. Gothic and mysterious, the ambience of this book is chilling. We are aware that there are many strange tensions burning beneath the sisters’ relationship. Vivien arrives and with her, so do the memories of Ginny’s life. Memories she has tried to suppress. Memories which, as the book progresses, we realise are not at all what they seem.
The Stone family is an eccentric one who, throughout the generations, has consisted of researchers and professors specialising in lepidoptery, that is, the study of moths. In her youth, Ginny was introduced into this field by her father, and throughout the book, we encounter assiduous experiments, relentless information and endless descriptions of the way Ginny dedicates most of her time to this subject. Many readers might find this boring, however in retrospect, the everyday checks and tests to be done by Ginny on the moths serve not only as a metaphor of Ginny’s relationship with her family, but also give us an important insight into the main character’s own way of thinking – her own world. Ginny, in fact, needs structure. She needs a routine. She needs everything to be in a certain way, in a certain sequence, in order to be able to survive.
It is at this point, perhaps half-way through the book, that the reader starts to understand that Ginny is that most elusive and shadowy kind of main character – a fallible narrator. The fallible narrator is a writing stratagem which became most famous, perhaps, after Henry James published his story The Turning of the Screw in 1898. A fallible narrator is usually someone who narrates a novel or story, but who, either because of mental illness or because he does not know the whole truth and cannot see the real picture, distorts reality in such a way as to confuse the reader into thinking as he does – that is, into believing falsehoods. In other words, the narrator in this case is most often unconsciously lying to himself, maybe because the truth is too painful and horrible to face, and therefore the unaware reader also shares into this distorted version of reality.
As the novel progresses and we come more into contact with other people, like Ginny’s sister Vivien and her neighbours, we come to realise that Ginny’s memories are not completely true, yet not completely false. The Stone family has many skeletons in the closet, and Ginny herself, perhaps, is the most complex of them all.
All in all, this is a very interesting book and one which really leaves its mark on those who appreciate psychological thrillers. I would specifically recommend it to fans of Stephen King, James Herbert and Ruth Rendell.