The Sister (aka The Behaviour of Moths)

sisterHere are a few common literary themes I’m a sucker for: family secrets, faulty memory, different perspectives on single events, isolated eccentrics, and possibly unreliable narrators. And Poppy Adams’s The Sister, originally published in the UK with the title The Behaviour of Moths, includes all of these themes. Ginny, the narrator, has lived alone for years in a secluded mansion, working on her moth research. Now in her 70s, she has her habits and routines and seems comfortable with her life until her younger, more wordly sister Vivian shows up.

As the novel unfolds, we learn of Ginny and Vivian’s history together. It becomes clear early on that Ginny is not telling us everything we need to know to understand the situation. What is not clear is whether she’s outright lying or merely leaving things out or whether she really doesn’t understand what has happened. When Vivian tries to talk to Ginny, she sometimes seems to be meddling in things she doesn’t know anything about, and she sometimes seems to be simply trying to exorcise her own demons, and at other times she seems genuinely interested in seeing that Ginny is taken care of.

Like her father, Clive, Ginny is fascinated by moths, and the book includes several descriptions of moth behavior, clearly intended to get us thinking about parallels with human behavior. I suspect these sections are the ones that will either fascinate readers, or completely turn them off. I found them generally fascinating, if a little overdone at times, particularly toward the end.

I hesitate to say anything more about this book because it’s one of those books that rewards fresh reading. I will say that Adams plays fair; she lays the groundwork for everything we learn at the end. Very few of the twists come as complete surprises, but they aren’t obvious either. In that way, this book is very much like a Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell novel, and if you know my reading tastes, you’ll know that that is high praise.

As the book ends, we are left with as many questions as answers. We still don’t know whose perspective is accurate, and we don’t really have the full story about Ginny herself. I love this kind of ambiguity, but I imagine not everyone would. If you do, and especially if you like Barbara Vine, I recommend The Sister.

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6 Responses to The Sister (aka The Behaviour of Moths)

  1. Katherine says:

    I’m sorry to say that I was one of those people who felt cheated at the end of the book. But thanks for the review!

  2. I’ve got the UK cover/title – yet to read it, but the cover/title above makes it sound a totally different book – I wouldn’t have picked it up without the beautiful flyjacket, (Shallow I know, but I am easily swayed by a good cover). I think it’ll have to move onto my Christmas reading pile now…
    Merry Christmas!

  3. Matthew says:

    I wish you the best in this holiday season, full of joy and memories, and a healthy, bookish new year! Merry Christmas! :)

  4. Sarah says:

    I’ve read so many good reviews of this that I think I’ll have to try it and see if I agree.

    Using descriptions of moth behaviour to get you thinking about human behaviour is something A. S. Byatt does very well in her novella Morpho Eugenia (from Angels and Insects). Funnily enough, she also looks at a disturbing sibling relationship. I’ll be interested to see how the two compare.

  5. Teresa says:

    Katherine: Yeah, I can definitely understand why some people wouldn’t like the ending. I wouldn’t have minded a little more resolution, but I also enjoy the opportunity to speculate.

    Annabel: Yep, I never would have picked this up either if I hadn’t remembered Poppy Adams’ name, and I didn’t realize it was the book I had been hearing so much about until I was well into it. I have noticed more neguatve reviews of it in the US, and I wonder if it’s not finding the right audience over here because of the different title and cover.

    Matthew: Thanks so much! And a Merry Christmas to you!

    Sarah: I’ve seen Angels and Insects mentioned in reviews of this book, but I havent read it myself so I can’t compare. I should read more Byatt sometime, so maybe that would be a good one to look for sometime soon.

  6. adevotedreader says:

    Teresa: it’s a good but very disturbing read. It’s quite short, so if you did want to read more Byatt it’s a good place to start.

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