Thomas, the narrator of Adam Scovell’s quiet new novel Mothlight, is deeply affected by two things: moths, which he studies as a researcher, and the life of Phyllis Ewans, a family acquaintance who, likewise, is a researcher in Lepidoptera. Over the years, Thomas has formed a close relationship with her: “My visits were no longer those of a curious friend desiring the secrets of her past life, but those of a caring relative.” Phyllis is a taciturn, solitary woman whose past life remains a mystery even for Thomas. To fill the gaps, he sets out to learn about her history via photographs, which are abundantly presented on the pages of the novel. (There are some thirty photographs included).
Like with any preoccupation, there is the danger of overdoing it, and the hunt for more information begins to have an effect on Thomas’ psychological wellbeing. There are hues of a looming mental illness when, for instance, he starts to hear the wingbeats of moths in unlikely places, like here during the funeral of Phyllis’ sister:
The thought of such a skein of moths took a great hold over my senses at the funeral, and I remember imagining that same flock constantly and chaotically flying close behind my shoulders. This would be the first of many such occasions when what can only be described as an attack took hold of my senses and rendered me useless. The priest conducting the service spoke slowly and hypnotically as the coffin was lowered into the arid grave. My grandmother cried and I could hear her sobbing behind the fluttering, a cacophony gradually drowning out all the priest’s words, lost in the endless wingbeat of a thousand moths.
What I’m most impressed about in this novel is Scovell’s language. His sentences tend to be long, associative, attempting verbally to catch sensations as precisely as possible. To me, there is something very non-British about it, and as much as I detest making comparisons to one particular author, I’m reminded of Marcel Proust. This is not only because of the winding sentences but also because there is something refreshingly non-masculine about Thomas, who in “moments of synchronicity” begins to associate himself with the woman, believing they are one and same person. He remarks of his body: “My hands had never been especially masculine, my whole body in fact never really seeming either male or female apart from in the most basic of ways.” An inevitable comparison to W. G. Sebald could also be made in regard to the photos included.
But, in the end, we get to know relatively little about Thomas and his life, so engrossed he is with making sense of Phyllis. It is rare of me to wish that a novel was longer, but in this case I could easily have devoured another 150 pages or so. This is, however, more of a compliment than criticism, and a sign of an author who can write very captivatingly. Mothlight is a great example of a very focused and non-tangential novel. Moths, memory, and identity all blur together here beautifully, and I was happy to learn that this won’t be the last time we hear from Scovell, who already has a new title lined up for next year via Influx Press.
The act of remembering, so I thought, is the parasite of our hopes. It is parasitic. It lives and thrives upon us, whilst we live with the delusion that we define it, when it really defines us. It hatches, it devours and it destroys us from the inside out, until it is done and moves on to annihilate another life. I decided there and then that I was not going to let this parasite devour me, considering further that this was not even the parasite of my own memory, but doubly parasitic because it was the plague of someone else’s memory.