A brilliant book
It’s the story of two sisters, Ginny and Vivi. Vivi, the younger sister left the family mansion 47 years earlier and returns unexpectedly one weekend. Ginny, a reclusive moth expert has rarely left the house in all that time. What happens when they meet again is shocking to both of them. It’s a story full of mystery and suspense as it is revealed that the two have very different memories of their childhood and the events of the past.
The story alternates between the past and the present as Ginny recalls their lives. The house is now dilapidated, crumbling away, invaded by the Virginia creeper that covers the exterior turning it a beautiful deep red in the autumn. Ginny is an introverted, obsessive character who has rarely ventured out of the house since Vivi left. Her only contact with the outside world is through Michael, who was previously the gardener, when he brings her shopping. Two events in particular affected their lives. The first is when Vivi aged 8 fell from the bell tower and nearly died. She was impaled on an iron stake and as a result lost her ability to have children; the second when Maud, their mother died having tripped down the cellar steps changing their lives for ever.
Ginny, the narrator is the one who followed in her father’s footsteps becoming a “relatively famous lepidopterist“. Over the years she has closed down and locked rooms she no longer uses and has sold much of the furniture and many of their belongings. Vivi is horrified:
… you’ve wiped out every reference to our past. Our family might not have happened. There was no point in its existing for the last two hundred years if it’s got nothing to show for itself.
Ginny thinks differently and asks:
Is it really necessary to to record your life in order to make it worthwhile or commendable? Is it worthless to die without reference? Surely these testimonials last another generation or two at most, and even then they don’t offer much meaning. We all know we’re a mere fleck in the tremendous universal cycle of energy, but no one can abide the thought of their life, lived so intensively and exhaustively, being lost when they die, as swiftly and as meaninglessly as an unspoken idea.
This thought struck me quite forcibly. I know de-cluttering is “liberating” but almost emptying the house is taking it to the extreme. But on the other hand Ginny has a point – we are more than our possessions and our lives are so brief. These days so much is on record about us, but what does it all mean? Right from the start you realise that there is something different about Ginny and as the story is seen through her eyes it is told in intricate detail and a somewhat detached fashion.
The family relationships are so well defined and we see how they all interact and have a different perspective on the truth. The contrast between the sisters is reflected in the contrasting characters of their parents and the mother/daughter and father/daughter relationships. Ginny’s attention to detail is frightening – for example she pins the sheets to the blankets and they have to be tucked in in a particular way so that they won’t move when she is in bed. It takes her fifty-five minutes to make the bed! In the morning it hardly looks as though she slept in it. The disruption she experiences when Vivi returns to the house is fraught with tension as she silently stalks Vivi’s movements through the house.
I I loved all the detail about moths. Poppy Adams, so the book cover tells me, has a Natural Science degree and is a documentary filmmaker and it shows. Yet this is no dry, factual account. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the study of moths and their behaviour. They are not an aside but are integral to the story. At one point in the story Ginny goes with Clive, her father, when he gives a lecture at the Royal Entomological Society and it is here I think that I realised the significance of the title. Clive is asked whether he is suggesting that moths don’t make up their own minds about what they do, that their actions are absolutely determined. He replies that he believes their behaviour is involuntary. His questioner is aghast:
Involuntary! What – like the muscles that pump our hearts? You really believe that insects are living automatons? They have no emotions, no sentiment, no interests and no mind?
It seems that this is how Ginny sees and has lived her life. But then, as the story unravels, it is clear that all is not as it seems.