Mothlight by Adam Scovell review: an unconvincing tale
Novel about a friendship between a scholar and an older woman becomes a little tedious
The reader is left unsure as to whether folk horror is being performed in earnest, or pastiched. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Adam Scovell’s Mothlight tells of a friendship between a scholar called Thomas and an older woman called Phyllis Ewans. They bond over long walks and a shared passion for moths. Mystery surrounds Phyllis’s relationship with her sister, Billie, with whom she had fallen out many years ago. Early in the novel, Phyllis dies of old age; at her funeral Thomas experiences the first in a series of hallucinations, seeing “the wings of dead moths fall and float down into the grave like snow”.
Sorting through her belongings, he becomes fixated with getting to the bottom of “her mysteries, her estrangement from her sister, the constant parallels between our lives”. As the story progresses, Thomas relates “the great calamity of what could accurately called my breakdown, in which the death of Miss Ewans cast my obsessions into a startling cage from which I could not escape”.
Lepidoptery and storytelling have been known to make congenial bedfellows. In his Nabokov in America (2015), Robert Roper proposed that Vladimir Nabokov’s distinctive prose style in Lolita owed something to his sideline as a butterfly enthusiast. Nabokov’s contributions to lepidoptery journals enabled the Russian emigré to hone an English turn of phrase that combined belletristic exuberance with scientific precision; it was this blend that made Lolita’s narrator, Humbert Humbert, such a compelling companion. Like Humbert, Scovell’s narrator expresses himself in a somewhat mannered style. But whereas Humbert’s haughty diction evoked a charming, old-world elegance, Thomas’s verbosity is curiously half-baked. Despite his obsessive nature, he is not much of a details man when it comes to telling his tale: he professes a keen interest in the topography of the Welsh countryside, but has little to say about it beyond remarking that a particular region of North Wales is “notorious for its meagre public transport”; of his long walks with Phylis, we are told “there is little need to relate the extensive details of such conversations, as they were almost always framed around walking and moths”.
Conversely, he is more than happy to regale us with inane gibberish, remarking, for example, that his cumbersome Polaroid camera “was useless for photographing Lepidoptera, so I often wondered why I carried it around”. Happening across a picturesque graveyard, Thomas “thought of the many different types of moths that would inevitably also avail themselves of this graveyard, sharing my taste for its quietude”. When Phyllis becomes incapacitated towards the end of her life, he is “quietly depressed” because it means “Miss Ewans could no longer be interested in both moths and walking”. He reflects wistfully on his “one brief romance [that] had ended as soon as my obsessions with walking and moths had become readily apparent”.
Having theorised that wall-mounted moths might be said to enjoy a certain kind of freedom, he concedes that “such a description is arguably trite when considering that the moths were physically pined to the boards with steel needles”. Feeling under-appreciated in his academic milieu, he snipes that his supervisor “was clearly someone who hadn’t seen a live moth in years”.
These vaguely cringe-inducing pronouncements undermine the novel’s attempt to conjure an atmosphere of spine-tingling dread. The reader is left unsure as to whether folk horror is being performed in earnest, or pastiched.
Mothlight nods to touchstones of recent intellectual history, such as psychogeography, historical memory and material culture – “the busy life of objects left but not forgotten” – but these allusions are rarely fleshed out, and are in any case overshadowed by the narrator’s clumsy prattlings. Were we to impute a degree of knowing intent on the author’s part, we might judge this unconvincing portrait a masterly rendering of addled incompetence: in the infinitely elastic purview of the deranged mind, anything goes.
There would remain the small matter of enjoyment, which is contingent upon the conviction of the prose. If he were only losing his mind, that would be one thing; the trouble with Thomas is that, in addition to being evidently somewhat ailed, he is incredibly tedious.