I needed her to say the words, I needed her to spell it out. But the conversation continued, driven by useless bits of information.
Adam Scovell’s Mothlight is a quietly unsettling novel narrated by Thomas, a young academic lepidopterist who specializes in studying and collecting moths. Growing up, Thomas was obsessed with two elderly women—Phyllis, a professor of entomology and a collector of moths, and her sister Billie. At first, Thomas’s obsession revolved around a mystery—why did Phyllis treat her sister with such open disdain? “What had Billie done, I thought, that Phyllis Ewans considered so awful as to behave so coldly towards her?” After Billie died, Thomas became the elderly Phyllis’s caretaker, and his obsession switched to something else entirely. “Our lives were somehow mimetic of each other,” Thomas noticed that he and Phyllis shared a “synchronicity.” Then, when Phyllis dies, Thomas inherits her house and her extensive moth collection. But her death “cast my obsessions into a startling cage from which I could not escape.” He feels that Phyllis’s memories are starting to intermingle with his own and that she is sometimes eerily present, even touching him. His obsession is now an illness and to cure himself he decides he must unravel the mystery of Phyllis and Billie.
The “synchronicity” between Thomas and Phyllis reflects a theme of gender fluidity that is deftly woven throughout Mothlight. It unsettles young Thomas to feel that his memories and maybe even his self might be blending with a female counterpart who is generations older.
I had even felt at times that I was Miss Ewans which, as a thought, would shake me to the very core. “I am a boy and my name is Thomas,” I would often say to myself as a mantra, though it felt hollow.
Scovell seems fascinated by Thomas’s almost willful self-blindness, pushing him to deny the obvious time and time again.
My need to dominate Phyllis Ewans’ house grew to startling proportions. In my mind, I was convinced that the quickest way to answer my questions regarding her life was to organise the house. Her life was, so I kept repeating to myself, now contained only within these walls, within these objects, these photographs, these dead insects, these unfinished papers on the breeding patterns of privet hawk moths. As my obsession grew, my appetite lessened; I allowed for the occasional daydream, which often involved the proud display of a new collection of specimens on the walls of the department: my crowning achievement for an underfunded and disavowed segment of the university. My daydreams would continue, shaking hands with people more important than I was, showered with gratitude for the immense amount of work it clearly must have taken to organise, document, and restore the many moths in the collection.
Needless to say, his daydream that the university will be grateful for the gift of the moth collection that he has inherited from Phyllis and which he meticulously organizes will prove to be woefully unfounded.
Scattered across the book’s pages of Mothlight are about thirty snapshots from a collection that Scovell inherited. Elsewhere he describes them as “unnerving and eerie.” I didn’t find them particularly so, but then Scovell seems to know the people who took the photographs and who appear in them and that could change one’s reactions. Scovell uses some of the photographs to provide structure for his novel, building scenes and locations around specific images, as in the image of a hotel shown above.
Scovell writes in a formal style that reminded me at times of Kazuo Ishiguro. This kept me at an emotional distance from Thomas, but then he’s not a character one is likely to relate to very closely. He’s a lonely, haunted man who repeatedly sends himself down paths that the reader recognizes lead only toward certain disappointment.
Mothlight struck me as an oddly repressed novel for the year 2019. It scrupulously avoids and dances around Phyllis’s mystery—a secret lesbian affair—for 150 pages. And even in the end the novel cannot bring itself to be definitive. On its final pages, Thomas visits Heather, the daughter of Elsa, the mysterious woman who seems to have been Phyllis’s lover. She shows him an album of photographs from several trips the two women took together, but Thomas refuses to admit the obvious.
Heather was to show me one final photograph. The Polaroid simply had the pair of women together, and I could see that Heather was hopeful that this would be enough, that nothing else would need to be said.
But the photograph was not enough; it could have meant anything.
Thomas finally demands a definitive answer. “But what did Elsa mean to Miss Ewans?” To which Heather answers cryptically: “Phyllis Ewans walked,” she said, “and that is all.” And so the novel ends.
Adam Scovell is a filmmaker and writer. He writes the great blog called Celluloid Wicker Man, which is mostly about film. Mothlight comes out in early February 2019 from Influx Press, which has created a short film that eloquently introduces the book.
That actually sounds quite good. Thanks, Terry. I am notably cautious when cross gender themes enter books, given my own gender history.