Book review - Like a moth to the flame


THAT POPPY ADAMS WRITES brilliantly about moths should come as no surprise: she studied Natural Sciences at university and has worked as a documentary film-maker for the BBC and the Discovery Channel. Science is her thing. But her descriptions really are something else. There is one passage in this, her debut novel, about a caterpillar being eaten from the inside out by an army of tiny maggots, that is as vivid and disturbing as anything you'll read this year.

Trouble is, this isn't a science textbook but a work of fiction, and no amount of dazzling writing about the finer points of moth husbandry can mask its somewhat predictable plotting, or its flimsy conclusion. Ginny, our straight-talking first-person narrator, is a reclusive moth expert, holed up in a stately pile called Bullburrow in Dorset that has belonged to her family for generations. Her father was a lepidopterist, obsessed with finding out "what makes a moth a moth", and whereas her vivacious younger sister Vivien went to London to seek her fortune as soon as she could, Ginny followed her father into the family business without even considering the alternative of a life away from home.

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With both her parents now dead and her sister elsewhere, Ginny has gradually closed off the various wings of the house, selling off the furniture and concentrating on her research.

She is a famous lepidopterist, she tells us proudly, and, in spite of her arthritis, is still perfectly capable of looking after herself. She is very particular about her routines, and perhaps a little obsessive about keeping the right time, but other than that she could be any old lady living alone, making the best of things.

Her carefully regimented life is turned on its head, however, when, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, Vivien decides to come back to Bullborrow after a 47-year absence. From this point on, Ginny slowly starts to change; or, at least, we start to see a side to her that we haven't seen before, although we might have had an inkling it was there all along.

To her credit, Adams doesn't ladle on the obvious caterpillar-to-moth metamorphosis analogies, although they are certainly there if you want to go looking for them, along with other less obvious parallels to do with destiny and genetic predetermination.

What she does do – sometimes quite expertly, but often a little clunkily – is gradually bring us to the realisation, along with Ginny, that many of the things she has taken for granted about her past are based on lies.

To say much more would be to give the ending away, although you'll probably see it coming a mile off – and feel somewhat short-changed when it eventually arrives. Perhaps the best way to approach this book is to see the plot as a diversion – something to kill the time in between exquisite moth-related purple passages.