Michèle Forbes’ debut novel Ghost Moth contrasts a Belfast newly emerging from WWII, a city of possibility, with the same city twenty years later, fast succumbing to the start of “the troubles.”
Ghost Moth, the first novel by Irish actress Michèle Forbes, is just magnificent. Focusing on one family and the secrets they keep, the novel jumps back and forth in time between 1949, when Katherine Fallon is about to get engaged to George Bedford, and 1969, when they are long-married with four children and living in a Belfast exploding with violence and hatred.
Katherine is pushed into a remembrance of things past when she almost drowns while swimming at the beach with her family. This causes her to withdrawn from her husband — with whom she has a companionable, if not emotionally intimate, relationship — and retreat into her memories of an affair she had with another man while being courted by George.
An amateur opera singer, Katherine she falls for an enigmatic tailor who makes her a magnificent costume for a production of Carmen. She attempts to keep both relationships going as she can’t face the choose between romantic passion with a mysterious man and solid stability with the reliable George. When George proposes. she accepts, but carries on the affair secretly until a tragedy intervenes.
Through Forbes’ deft shuffling between present and past, we see the consequences of these secrets play out in Katherine’s life: in her failure to fully open up to her devoted husband, her preference to seek refuge in memories of the past, and the sense of guilt that haunts her life. We sense that Katherine can’t really engage with her daughters as they enter the teenage years and are full of questions about life, relationships, and the growing sectarian violence in the city; she keeps her innermost thoughts private, and this causes her to close down when the children need openness.
Her youngest child, Elsa, is nine and beginning to perceive the world through young-adult eyes. She wrestles with the hot-cold friendship of one neighbor, Isabel, who is beginning to feel that they shouldn’t be friends because Elsa’s family are Catholic and Isabel’s Protestant. Isabel treats Elsa very badly at times, yet Elsa can’t really address it with her emotionally absent mother. The secrets Katherine keeps have become something she obsesses over, to the point of seeming to be a spectator to her own family’s life. This is a shame, both for the family and the story. Like most people, Katherine’s tragedy is to experience feelings of passion and heightened emotion but be unable to express them. You sense that when she was younger her singing must have been her outlet for these fiery passions. But, as a middle-aged, married woman with children, she has no acceptable means of their expression, so must lock them away, preserving them in amber until they take on a totemic and disproportionate importance, which never ends well.
George is employed as a part-time fireman, and as the conflict in the city ramps up, he’s physically absent much of the time, leaving the children with a mother who is becoming increasingly ghost-like, lost in her memories. The tension in the situation reaches saturation point as Forbes contrasts the escalating violence in the “present” sections of the book with Katherine’s memories as the year of her affair ends, and she and George go on their honeymoon. While I don’t wish to reveal exactly what occurs, I have to credit Forbes with skillfully structuring the book so that the emotional tension is ratcheted up and up, before being released in a stunning manner.
The final section is marked by a beautiful passage where Katherine has a vision of her children’s future lives. The reader recognizes the scars and damage her emotional distance has left on the children, but it’s sadly unclear whether Katherine does. Their handicaps are tempered by their own inner resources and drive, and there are triumphs in store as well as sorrows. In Forbes hands, this vision is both a tragic testament to their parents’ imperfections, and a joyous vision of their future lives. This recalls both Larkin’s cheeky verse: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do”, and the truism that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Like many debut novels, Ghost Moth draws on the author’s own experiences of growing up in Belfast at the end of the 1960s among a family involved in the theater world. Forbes’ experience as an actress accustomed to determining the motivations and inner-lives of characters from their words and actions in a script allows her to build characters that are very fully realized and memorable. The everyday details of life in the 1960s are intimately rendered and there’s a sense that many of the secondary characters have a much bigger life than we necessarily see while the novel explores Katherine and George’s story. While Elsa is the only one of the children who jumps off the page, the vague outlines of her siblings seems a deliberate ploy to emphasize their mother’s emotional absence, rather than any failure of the author’s descriptive powers.
While Ghost Moth is not a light-hearted read, it is a very satisfying and fascinating story. The psychological acuity and powerful prose Michèle Forbes exhibits in this first novel makes us hope for many future books from this talented writer.
The US edition of Ghost Moth is published by Bellevue Literary Press…
Ghost Moth is published in the UK & Ireland by Wiedenfeld & Nicolson…
Check out Michèle Forbes website…