Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review: Ghost Moth by Michele Forbes

Somewhere along the way in my reading I came across the myth of the selkie, the seal which can slip out of its skin and assume human form. But it is a common enough myth, especially in Irish lore, that the first scene in Michele Forbes' beautifully evocative novel, Ghost Moth, can't help but invoke echoes of it and the idea that male selkies typically appear to women dissatisfied with their lives. Opening with Katherine swimming out too far on a seaside outing and coming face to face with a seal, an encounter that mesmerizes her and almost drowns her as she alternately panics and freezes at the seal's proximity, its mournful eyes, and her imaginings of its malevolent intent, the novel captures a feeling of lament and emotional remove that reflects through Katherine's marriage and indeed much of her life. Is the seal a selkie? Not as written here but knowledge of the myth infuses the scene and sets the reader up to know that Katherine is in fact emotionally paralyzed and her twenty year marriage shows increased glimpses of tension because of long held, quietly nurtured secrets that are starting to bubble to the surface.

The novel weaves two time periods together: the year that Katherine and her eventual husband George were courting in late 1949 and the tense, rife with turmoil, bombings, and religious hatred of 1969 Belfast. George is a firefighter and in the terrible face of the bombings, he must mobilize regardless of Katherine's desperate need for him to stay home with her and the children. Alternating with the angry resignation of their marriage is the plot thread of the seemingly light and carefree time leading up to their engagement when Katherine, a budding amateur singer, was starring in a local production of Carmen and, in fact, indulging in a clandestine affair with Tom, the gifted young tailor creating her costume. The whirlwind secret of Katherine's relationship with Tom in her youth contrasts with the steady, settled married life she leads with George and their four children. But the events of the past are not content to lie dormant; they haunt Katherine's present.

Forbes has mirrored the tensions of the outside world in the claustrophobic domesticity of the Bedford family. The eruptions and the admissions of culpability are unexpected, indiscriminately hurtful, and permanently damaging. The writing throughout is intricate and lyrical but flashes of anger and belligerence break through. The back story of Katherine's affair is slow and seemingly unconnected to the reserved and distant Katherine of the later plot, at least until the shocking and unpredictable reveal. Even with the startling truth though, there is a ghostly, evanescent feel to much of the narration. Forbes has captured beautifully the tensions pulling like taffy at the Bedfords' marriage and the way in which children intuit that which remains unsaid. Replete with imagery that sometimes overwhelms the story, this novel, much like the seal did for Katherine's character in the opening scenes, mesmerizes readers, wrapping them lazily into the tale until there is no escape but by turning the final page.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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