Beyond the Smoke and Concrete: Michèle Forbes’s Ghost Moth
Bellevue Literary Press, April 2013
Reviewed by Courtney McDermott
Ghost moths are pure-white, “the souls of the dead waiting to be caught,” explains Katherine to her daughter, Elsa. Katherine, the heroine of Michèle Forbes’ Ghost Moth, is a former stage actress and mother of four who is haunted by her memories. These ghosts are brought to the surface in the opening scene, as Katherine encounters a seal face-to-face while swimming in the ocean, and thinks of her former lover. Forbes paints this seal in a wild, potentially dangerous light: “Battle-scarred, his snout slopes to an ugly dull point… But it’s his eyes—the eyes of this wild animal—that terrify Katherine the most; huge, opaque, and overbold, they hold on her like the lustrous black-egged eyes of a ruined man.” Forbes immediately sets the stage for a novel that invokes nature in a spiritual context to answer human problems.
Michèle Forbes is a theater, television and film actress, and so she brings that background and expertise to Katherine’s character. Though this is Forbes’ first novel, Katherine is a sophisticatedly created heroine, perfect in her flaws, compelling in her lies, beautiful in her tragedy. She is a contemplative figure, living in her head much like a Virginia Woolf character. She floats away on waves of memory throughout the book, moving between the 1960s when she was a housewife married to George, to the 1940s when she was an actress and engaged in a love affair behind her then fiance’s back. What does love feel like? Katherine’s oldest daughter, Maureen asks. “Floating and burning,” her mother replies.
And like love, Forbes’ prose floats with captured emotion and burns with its vivid imagery. Forbes has a meticulous eye for detail, a precision in the processes she describes, whether it is the tailor Tom measuring a costume for Carmen—“placing one end of this tape measure in the center of her lower back and pulling it down to the floor, then measuring her from her waist down to her knee”—, or Katherine’s daughters constructing a fair in their backyard, draping sheets over table and clotheshorses and setting up games of pin the tail on the donkey and hoopla.
Her careful precision with language allows Forbes to unravel the tension mounting in mid-20th century Northern Ireland. Her subtlety enfolds the reader in her world without being preachy about the epic themes of war and religion. We see the civil unrest in Belfast through George’s volunteer position as a firefighter. We see the religious tension through Elsa’s classmates forcing her to say the alphabet (where the Catholics differ in the pronunciation of ‘h’). Forbes reveals that domestic life continues and personal relationships ebb and flow even during conflict. For example, after the children’s fair, Katherine and her daughters dismantle the fortune-telling tent, pull down the sheets from the clothesline, check on baby Stephen playing in the grass, while in the distance the sun is hidden and “[g]ray smoke still hands over the city.” Though the family is engrossed with the mundane, fighting continues in the horizon.
Rather than relying heavily on describing the Troubles in Belfast, Forbes uses them as a backdrop to explore familial dynamics, and buried secrets. Ghost Moth is a place-driven novel. The burgeoning political troubles are present and do affect relationships and events in the novel, but it is the natural world that Forbes depicts beyond the smoke and concrete of the city that is the most compelling aspect of her work.
What Forbes has so carefully and lyrically constructed is a world in which nature holds all of our answers in an almost god-like sense. Katherine’s love for Tom, her now-dead lover, resurges in the waters with the seal. Her confession to George occurs under a “swollen moon.” Elsa comes to terms with her mother’s death by imagining the ghost moths. Just as the moths undergo metamorphosis, so must Katherine’s life. If we carry the dead with us (or, like the moths, the dead skin or shell) then we forget to live.
Forbes’ achievement in this work is connecting the human, the family, war and religion back to this purer natural and almost spiritual state. Ghost Moth reminds us to get back to the fundamental basics of existence and continues to hover in my head like one of these ghost moths: translucent, otherworldly, ever-present.
Courtney McDermott’s short stories and essays have appeared in Berkeley Fiction Review, Daily Palette, Found Press, Italy from a Backpack, A Little Village Magazine, The Lyon Review, Raving Dove, Sliver of Stone, and Third Wednesday. She also writes book reviews for NewPages.com and various journals. A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer in the Country of Lesotho, her first collection of short stories, inspired by her experience, will be released by Whitepoint Press later this fall. She has her MFA in creative writing from the University of Notre Dame and currently lives in the Boston metro area.