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Book Review: Mothlight by Adam Scovell

From the mind of British Folk Horror writer/filmmaker Adam Scovell, Mothlight takes the reader on an atmospheric journey through love, loss, and life. Ashley Murphy reviews the novel and discusses the intriguing narrator.

Mothlight is written by Adam Scovell and published by Influx Press, February 2019

Part ghost story, part detective fiction, Mothlight (Adam Scovell, published by Influx Press) is an unusual and compelling novel that explores memory, identity, and the limits of human knowledge. The book is narrated by Thomas, a discombobulated voice with schizoid tendencies, far removed from anything made of flesh and bone. Thomas is suffering from an “illness of Phyllis Ewans,” a compulsive obsession to uncover the mysteries surrounding his life-long friend, a woman who seemed to love nothing except walking and moths.

As a young boy, Thomas is drawn into the sibling rivalry between Phyllis Ewans and her sister, Billie. After Billie Ewans passes away, Thomas is struck by Phyllis’s lack of compassion for her deceased sister. As Thomas and Phyllis become closer through their shared love of moths and walking, he makes some veiled attempts to uncover the nature of the sisterly rift. But it’s only after Phyllis’s own passing – as he sorts through the dead woman’s belongings – that he learns of her secret relationship with a female colleague. He also learns about BiIlie’s jealous, meddling character, and of the hushed-up scandal which exposes how the prejudices of the past, forced “Miss” Phyllis Ewans to live a life defined by loss, loneliness, and secrecy.

Thomas is a strange, abstracted character, both oddly present yet absent from the story he tells us. As Thomas struggles to piece together the clues of Phyllis’s life, the reader finds themselves trapped beneath another cloud of unknowing, teased by a series of subtle disclosures as to who Thomas really is, but that ultimately tell us nothing.

“By the final page of Mothlight, Thomas ‘knows’ everything, but understands nothing.”

The relationship between reader and narrator both mimics and reflects the connection between Thomas and the ineffable Miss Ewans. When he finally learns about the details surrounding the scandal that defined the dead woman’s melancholic existence, Thomas is struck with a realisation, a kind of inverted revelation, in which discovering the truth is very different from knowing what it means. By the final page of Mothlight, Thomas ‘knows’ everything, but understands nothing.

Mothlight is a skillfully constructed narrative that manages to bind itself together while simultaneously coming apart at the seams. Ostensibly, Mothlight is a story about failure; in the concluding passages, Thomas’s fractured mental state is on the brink of utter collapse and dissolution. It’s a fitting vanishing point for young Thomas, a moment when language folds in on itself, where silence becomes more powerful than speech, simply because there is nothing more to be said.

And yet, despite this failure, there are signs that the Thomas narrating Mothlight is very different from the young man who lived through the mystery of Miss Ewans. It’s telling that the novel begins with the words, “To my knowledge.” Like anything Thomas reveals about himself, this does not tell us much. Yet there is a subtle suggestion that this matured narrator is reconciling himself with the limits of his own understanding, the idea that meaning or any kind of profundity must always be surrounded by mystery and silence.

“Life and death, time and memory, and knowledge and mystery are conceptualised as both symbiotic and parasitical relationships.”

Thomas is still deeply affected by his experience with Miss Ewans and is yet to return to ‘real’ world, but the reader can take some hope from the redemptive power of storytelling. Mothlight may well be the cocoon from which a new Thomas is emerging. The novel plays with this idea in all its major themes. Life and death, time and memory, and knowledge and mystery are conceptualised as both symbiotic and parasitical relationships. The solidity of Thomas’s “new” identity, or its continuing dissolution, is crucially linked to how he comes to terms with this yin/yang of conflicting but deeply intertwined forces.

Mothlight is a combination of postmodern musings on the nature of identity and a romantic, or post-romantic, yearning for “old fashioned” concepts like truth and meaning. Thomas’s voice echoes some of the real heavyweights of European literature; there are whispers of Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Thomas Bernhard, while more contemporary comparisons include Paul Auster and the late-stage, philosophical novels of Don Delillo. It is an accomplished novel by a very skilled writer, and its pages contain enough clues to suggest that there is much more to come from the author.

Mothlight is Adam Scovell‘s fictional debut. It’s due for release in Feb 2019 through Influx Press.


Ashley Murphy

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