May 10, 2008 3:00 am

Metamorphosis

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The Behaviour of Moths

by Poppy Adams

Virago £12.99,

320 pages

FT Bookshop price: £10.39

If you were to slice open a cocoon in midwinter, all you'd find is a creamy liquid. What was once the caterpillar will eventually reconstitute itself, come spring, as the moth. Clive Stone, one of the characters in Poppy Adams' striking debut novel, calls the viscous contents of the cocoon "pupal soup".

The Behaviour of Moths is narrated by Clive's daughter Ginny, who tells us that her father was an amateur lepidopterist - studying butterflies and moths - and obsessed by pupal soup. It is an obsession that Clive has passed on to Ginny - "actually quite a famous lepidopterist" herself, as she reminds the reader at one point. "My family was fanatical," she says. "They all seemed to be consumed by something in the end."

A great deal hangs on the ambiguity of that word "consumed". Ginny's story is in a sense a confession - that lepidoptery hasn't only been a vocation but a kind of imprisonment. The physical ex-pression of her mental incarceration is Bulburrow Court, the huge and decrepit family house in which Ginny now lives alone.

The Behaviour of Moths is also, in its quietly idiosyncratic way, a novel of ideas. When Ginny reflects on the "analytic and scientific" cast of mind she inherited from her father, it's difficult not to think of Keats and the "touch of cold philosophy" that "unweaves" the poetry of natural phenomena. Indeed, one of the principal set-pieces in the book is Ginny's memory of a lecture Clive gave to the Royal Entomological Society, which ended with him defending his "reductionist" credo against the objections of clergymen.

Such recollections are occasioned by the arrival of Ginny's younger sister Vivien at Bulburrow Court after an absence of more than 40 years. At first, Ginny sees a chance finally to disentangle the mysteries of their childhood and so to resolve, as it were, the pupal soup of her past. But when Vivien suggests that the death of their alchoholic mother had not been what it seemed, that past once again becomes something "writhing and fluid".

Adams took a risk in deciding to tell her story in the flat, abstracted voice of someone who has devoted her life to a "little known insect". But it is a convincing, true voice and it is to Adams' credit that she sustains it as she does.

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