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Washington Post Book World
Friday, August 22nd, 2008
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The Sister

by Poppy Adams

Cocoon

A review by Dennis Drabelle

Who cares about moths? Butterflies I can see making a hobby of. They undergo that remarkable transformation from ugly earthbound crawlers to lovely airborne vagabonds traveling in graceful swoops. But moths are drab nuisances that haunt lit lamps and chew on woolens, so who needs them?

The Stones -- the family at the heart of The Sister, Poppy Adams's masterly neo-Gothic novel -- do. For Clive, the father, moths are so engrossing that he sometimes gets up from the table with his meal half-eaten to go check on a moth-centered experiment in his upstairs laboratory. He's so preoccupied, in fact, that he becomes an unwitting enabler of the alcoholism to which his wife, Maud, is succumbing. Their older daughter, Ginny, shares her father's passion and frequently assists him. Only the other child, Ginny's sister, Vivien, seems unaffected by the collecting and research going on in and around Bulburrow Court, the family manse in the English countryside, ideally located for moth fanciers because the shifting winds can waft in fugitives from either the south (Spain, Morocco) or the north (Norway).

Moths, it so happens, have many of the same fascinating attributes as butterflies. Perhaps even more fascinating, as this passage about moths' maturation suggests: "If you cut through a cocoon in mid-winter, a thick creamy liquid will spill out, and nothing more. What goes into that cocoon in autumn is a caterpillar and what comes out in spring is entirely different -- a moth, complete with papery wings, hairlike legs and antennae. Yet this same creature spends winter as a gray-green liquid, a primordial soup. The miraculous meltdown of an animal into a case of fluid chemicals and its exquisite re-generation into a different animal, like a stupendous jigsaw, was a feat that, far from putting him off, fed Clive's obsession."

Though Clive is an amateur scientist, that obsession leads to some real contributions. For instance, by measuring radioactivity in certain moths, he is able to connect them with faraway Soviet nuclear testing and thus prove what lepidopterists had long suspected: that the delicate-seeming creatures are capable of flying great distances.

The narrator of the above passage (and the book as a whole) is Ginny, now about 70 and still living in Bulburrow Court. Her parents are long since dead, and most of the great house is closed off to save on heating costs. Ginny still putters around with moths, insists on always knowing what time it is and generally keeps to herself. In fact, she seems a bit dotty, a recluse who at first may remind the reader of Emily Dickinson, but without the poetry.

Ginny is no innocent, however. To alleviate the pain of arthritis, she drinks cannabis tea. And soon enough, the reader learns that she had a child with her brother-in-law, Vivien's husband. This came about because of an accident that happened when the two women were girls. After stealing upstairs through one of the mansion's hidden passageways, they were fooling around when Vivien lost her balance and fell, injuring her womb so badly that she had to have a hysterectomy. Although Vivien is younger, Ginny has always been in thrall to her, and several years later, still single, she agreed to give Vivien a child by going to bed with Vivien's husband, time after time, until they managed to conceive.

Ginny is filling in this background now because Vivien has suddenly returned after an absence of almost 50 years. For reasons she keeps to herself, she has shown up at the Court, intending to move back in and live out the rest of her days there. Since the old pile is half hers, she has every right to do this, and at first Ginny is happy to have her baby sister back, even though her bumptious presence disrupts the longstanding habits into which Ginny has settled. But soon Vivien becomes a 60-something handful, not least because she insists on challenging Ginny's strongly held version of the family dynamics when they were growing up.

Adams, who has made documentary films for the Discovery Channel, writes sparkling prose and expertly weaves into the action what seems an inexhaustible knowledge of moths. Here, for example, is a paragraph that manages to be at once beautiful, informative and disturbing:

"One early autumn day," Ginny recalls, "Clive and I were busy killing and counting the second-generation Brimstones from the night before. It had been the best catch of the season, the trap such a shimmer of iridescent yellow it looked as if we had caught a single celestial being, which writhed in protest in its jar. It was while we were jubilantly counting them, more than two thousand in one trap, that we considered showing the result to Maud. That is when, to my disgrace, I worked out that we hadn't seen her for two days."

With its stylish prose, taut plotting and dark psychology, The Sister is reminiscent of the best books by Ruth Rendell's alter ego, Barbara Vine. And it comes with a bonus: that storehouse of information about moths. After reading this remarkably assured first novel, you may find yourself looking at those poor cousins to butterflies with a new sense of respect and fear.

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.


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