It isn’t often that a book makes me cry; makes me experience a deep anguish that the characters have spent their lives living with a painful regret that taints everything they do, blotting out the joy they should be experiencing in the present moment; leaves a tiny fragment of itself inside me to ponder over. Michèle Forbes’s debut novel, Ghost Moth, is such a book.
The story is set in Northern Ireland and split between two time frames: 1949 where Katherine chooses between a tailor, Tom McKinley, who shows her what passionate love can be and reliable, safe George Bedford, who works for the council and as a retained fireman, and 1969 where the choice she made comes back to taunt her with as much violence and tragedy as the beginnings of the Troubles that simmer in the background. It’s not only the time that is split, however. Katherine herself has two distinct halves: the young accounts clerk and singer who takes the title role in Carmen of 1949 who takes moonlit walks with her young beau Tom where it is so dark ‘he had to sniff the air to sense whether what lay before him was the thickness of clotted vegetation or the thin, cool envelope of the river’s breeze’ and the forty something mother of four twenty years later who lives a life dominated by domesticity and the tragedy of her past. Northern Ireland too presents itself as dramatically changed over the twenty year time frame. By 1969 the streets are no longer the stomping ground for young love. Instead they burn with fires and hatred and Katherine’s Catholic children have already learned to hide their differences from their neighbours, learned to recite the alphabet differently so as not to reveal their Catholicism by the utterance of the letter ‘h’.
Ghost Moth is beautifully written with descriptive, engaging prose rich with symbolism and metaphor that places the reader in the moment with exactness and great skill. Although Forbes occasionally repeats images perhaps too often, it is easy to forgive. The opening sequence where Katherine swims too far out to sea and encounters a seal is worth buying the book for alone. As the creature rises out of the deep blackness of the sea, we realise that Katherine can no longer hold her secrets within herself: ‘Thoughts of someone that she has blotted out throughout her married life but which – if the truth be told – have never gone away. Thoughts of him.’
Forbes uses description of setting to describe not only the scene, but the emotion within it. Her initial encounter with the tailor Tom, who is to design her costume for Carmen, reverberates with the feelings he arouses within her:
‘To the right of these… there were spools of thread on small shelves, wound and waiting… Some of the boxes had been torn open, revealing tiny landslides of navy satin circles and round nut-coloured shapes. One box revealed a spill of checkered red buttons.”
As he measures her, her feelings towards him spill out of her and can never be contained again.
It is in the use of symbolism and metaphor that Forbes makes her tale of love and domesticity shine: the title of the book being the metaphor that runs through the whole story. Katherine believes that the ghost moths that surrounded her as a child are the souls of the dead attracted to her white nightdress. Similarly the ghosts of the dead in her past are still drawn to her in her present day.
Forbes captures the joy and challenge of motherhood with precision and the scene where the children put on a fair in their back garden, including a fortune teller, her eldest daughter Maureen with a crystal ball, is simple and powerful, capturing not only the obvious easiness and love of a mother with her children, but also the tension that exists when children grow up and start to move apart from their mother and the delicacy needed to deal with it. When Maureen asks Katherine what love feels like, her reply reveals the truth in Katherine’s heart: ‘Floating and burning’ she says to herself, echoing not only her encounter with the seal, but the ever present smoke that lingers on the horizon.
Any Cop?: A fabulous story that meets its promise to ‘show you the extraordinary in the ordinary’.