LitStack Review: Ghost Moth by Michèle Forbes

Ghost MothGhost Moth
Michèle Forbes
Bellevue Literary Press
Release Date:  April 16, 2013
ISBN 978-1-934137-60-4

Ghost Moth is a beautifully deceptive book.  It feels light, ethereal, gentle and precious.  Yet it deals with such momentous issues as religious intolerance, infidelity, illness, death.  The truly perilous moments glance by, whereas innocuous times feel fraught with peril.  Innocence and guilt are not two sides of the same coin, they are roommates who share glasses of orange juice at breakfast.  But the writing is so deft, so personal, so delicate that the prose fairly trembles; it’s as though author Michèle Forbes is walking a tightrope above her story, always in danger of falling into the abyss and yet remaining above the fray by staying relaxed and never looking down.

Katherine remembers that even on their wedding day, a pensiveness had followed them like a dust breeze at their backs, creating around them the sound of an almost-detectable pulse.  She remembers the church small and quaint, like a doll’s house.  There were lilies in wide vases, settled in their symmetry, giving out a creamy, heady scent.  There was the smell of frankincense and myrrh.  There were white ribbons on the ends of the pews.  Six tall candles graced the altar.  As she walked up the aisle, the congregation passed their coughs along the pews as if passing a collection basket.  She wore two rows of neat pearls around the lace neckline of her white silk wedding dress.  George waited at the altar for her, shifting nervously from foot to foot.  The priest had the pink glossiness of a skin not used to daylight.

Ghost Moth is the story of Katherine and George, and their family:  daughters Maurine, Elizabeth, Elsa, and the toddler, Stephen.  Told mainly from Katherine’s point of view, relating her thoughts and observations (although young Elsa provides an arresting and slightly off balance counterpoint, as children often do), the narrative bounces between 1949, before she and George are married, and twenty years later, at the end of 1969 and into 1970.  The family lives in east Belfast, Northern Ireland, a Catholic family in a simmering Protestant community.

In 1949, Katherine is a promising young singer in an amateur musical-theater troop, starring as the lead in their production of Bizet’s “Carmen”, even as she works days as an accounting clerk with a bank.  (She tells her children that opera singing was her “hobby”.)  As per the convention of the day, she leaves both occupations when she marries George, to concentrate on their potential and then budding family.  She dotes on her children, George dotes on her, and the children grow confident of their parents’ attention.  George has solid employment at the Water Commissioner’s office, and is an on-call fireman in his free time.

Skip to 1969.  While there is no explication or lead up to the events of the time in Ghost Moth, Irish history reminds us that August 1969 was a time of major upheaval in Northern Ireland.  Conflicts between nationalist Catholics and loyalist Protestants erupted into rioting, with the most violent clashes occurring in Belfast, ushering in 30 years of strife known as “the Troubles”.  While Katherine and George live far enough away from the city proper to not get caught up in the riots, they can see the columns of smoke rising from the burning buildings; their lives are affected by the underlying tension, from the stress of George being called in to battle the flames, to neighborhood children parroting the taunts of their parents, to a particularly shocking moment that happens to Katherine during a shopping trip when she unthinkingly crosses herself while passing by a Catholic church.  As much as George and Katherine try to shelter their children from the violence sprouting up around them, at any given time they may be confronted with human intolerance that cannot be easily explained away and dismissed, even to youngsters – perhaps especially to youngsters, for they do not understand the tapestry of hatred that their elders have so eagerly woven and in which they so tightly wrap themselves.

This political conflict is a backdrop to the much more subtle, much more internal conflict that lies dormant between Katherine and George.  Events that happened long ago, hidden feelings and yearnings come to a finite end and yet linger in memory, actions taken or not taken without witness yet in full view of the perpetrator – all these are set aside and but continue to fester at the heart of their relationship, and it is not until something bigger than each of them and all their pasts shows just how frail life is that Katherine and George come to terms with everything that they tried to leave behind.  Unlike the world around them, though, these revelations come not with a bang, but with a whisper, mirroring life as it truly is rather than the drama we try to pull from it.

“Anyway, I remember the first time I saw them, I couldn’t believe it…”  Katherine takes a deep breath.  “Oh, they were so beautiful, so they were, Elsa.  Pure-white moths rising and falling above the grass, as if they were dancing, moving towards me, hovering over me.  I remember lying down in the grass on my back in my white nightdress – just as you are now, just in the shape that you’re making.  I somehow believed I would be irresistible to them, that I could trap them, as though I were a light in the dusk.”

Small, delicately handled moments from a life, the dramas that make up that life but aren’t fully realized until looking back and being haunted by how full and how wonderful and how terrible they were, Ghost Moth is a lovely and gently devastating book.  It does not demand to be read, but those who do read it will experience a story of loss – and of life – that reverberates more deeply and more genuinely than many other more demonstrative offerings that attempt to reach out to us.  It’s a troubling yet lovely book, one that will linger, like memory.

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