Saturday, 13 June 2015

Review: The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein


Recently I picked up The Moth Diaries at a secondhand book sale, after being on the lookout for it ever since my friend Elisha recommended it to me years ago. I was thrilled to finally find it, especially as it only cost me a euro. Having finished it a couple of days ago, I can tell it's going to be one of those books that will haunt me, in a similar way to Helen Grant's The Glass Demon and Johan Harstad's 172 Hours on the Moon.

If I hadn't been looking for this book I doubt very much I would have picked it up because I actively dislike the cover of this particular edition. I don't think there's any finesse or artistic quality to it, and it certainly doesn't reflect the story in any way that I could see. The combination of the creepy girl and the odd font reminded me of a tacky 70s horror novel at first glance, and apparently my book cover instincts are pretty accurate because it actually is set in the 70s and I suppose it does come under the genre of horror. But it's far from tacky - it's dark, subtle and poignant.

As the title suggests, the story is told in a diary format and from the point of view of an unnamed narrator, who, at the time of writing her diary, is sixteen and a boarding student at a prestigious old-fashioned girls' school. At the very beginning of the book, the narrator is looking forward to the year as she is able to get away with from her mother and spend time with her best friend Lucy. Only a few days later, however, Lucy strikes up a new friendship with the enigmatic 'new girl' from across the corridor, Ernessa Bloch. Tormented by jealousy, the narrator grows gradually more suspicious of Ernessa, and eventually becomes convinced that she is, in fact, a vampire. Meanwhile the narrator is struggling with her grief over her father's suicide and her deteriorating relationship with her mother, which we see in more detail when she returns home for the holidays. The story spans almost the whole school year, but the diary entries become less and less mundane in their contents as the narrator's thoughts overflow with envy, suspicion and hallucination.

To sum The Moth Diaries up briefly, I would describe it as The Bell Jar meets Carmilla. Perhaps the similarities with Le Fanu's novel are more obvious, but I feel it can be compared to The Bell Jar too: the narrator is stuck in her own world, and seems unable to act on her suspicions, while the novel essentially charts her mental breakdown. There are two layers to the story, as it is explained in the preface and afterword, written 30 years after the main narrative, that the narrator has been encouraged by her psychiatrist to publish the diary she kept in her junior year of high school. This of course has its own implications for the reader's interpretation, which I'll get to later.

If you like action or adventure, this book is not for you. The atmosphere is heavy and dense, and the pacing is almost painfully slow: at some points while reading it I had that feeling of trying to run in a dream, that I was turning the pages and not really getting anywhere. But while that might irritate some people, I found it added to the story - it's about grief and friendships and slow mental collapse, and those themes are entirely incompatible with a fast-paced narrative.

In the preface the narrator tells us that the diary is from 30 years ago, and as the book was published in 2002 that places it in the early 70s. For me this was a refreshingly different setting, and I don't think the story wouldn't have worked half as well if it had been set in the 2000s with the distractions of modern technology. The events needed to have some distance from reality in order to be effective, and this is achieved with the boarding school setting: the narrator makes the point several times that the girls feel cut off from the real world, that they can only function in their enclosed universe of the school. Talking about her own children in the afterword, the narrator says: "They've always been at home in the world. They don't know the pain and surprise of coming into it."

As somewhat of a connoisseur when it comes to vampire literature, I immediately picked up on a lot of the elements are typical of vampire novels, such as a crumbling gothic setting, homoeroticism, eastern European ancestry - along with a general atmosphere of decadence and decay. Rachel Klein definitely draws on the old vampire tradition found in Polidori's The Vampyre, Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla and Stoker's Dracula, rather than the more recent additions of deathly beautiful sparkly vegetarian vampires with superpowers. The relationship between vampire and victim is reminiscent of Carmilla in particular in that the vampire is able to integrate herself into society in order to prey on her victim, while the latter remains oblivious to these nightly visitations. Another similarity is that Ernessa is presented (although not exclusively) as a victim of her nature, rather than simply an evil parasite, in that at a certain point the narrator recognises her sadness that her immortality must bring. And of course, the name Ernessa is reminiscent of Carmilla, and of her aliases Mircalla and Millarca. There is also a very obvious reference to Dracula in the character of Lucy, as in Stoker's tale the Count's first victim is Lucy Westenra - as soon as I read that there was a character called Lucy I knew exactly where the story was going for her.

One of the things I often find irritating about vampire novels is that the main characters tend to take an awfully long time in realising that the shadowy character who doesn't eat or sleep and mysteriously disappears and reappears in strange places is, in fact, a vampire. Likewise, the entire vampire canon inexplicably ceases to exist. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that it's very much integrated into the plot of The Moth Diaries, as the narrator is taking a course on the supernatural in literature and it's through this that she reads Carmilla and really comes to terms with the fact that Ernessa is a vampire. However, the realisation doesn't have the shock factor that a lot of authors tend to give it - as is consistent with the atmosphere of slow doom and dreasd, it's recorded as more of an idle observation relatively early on, and the narrator is almost Hamletian in the way she doesn't act on this crucial piece of information until the very end of the book. Suspicious? Maybe.

But the main focus of the story is by no means a vampiric one. It's much more about friendships between girls and the anxieties of growing up, all exacerbated by the close-knit environment of the boarding school. A lot of the characters are what I think of as filler characters, they're only really there to move the plot along and make the school setting believable. Having said that, they are all intrinsically flawed and often very relatable - they struggle with the problems of teenage girls the world over. I really enjoyed the whole dynamic of friendships that was going on, especially the constant battle of wills between Ernessa and the narrator for Lucy's attention.

Now I love an unreliable narrator, and The Moth Diaries doesn't disappoint here. The hazy narration undercuts the entire story and makes us question its validity - the narrator tells us herself in the preface that she suffered from borderline personality disorder complicated by depression and psychosis, and it is up to the reader to decide how much of the story is true. The fact that the events are told through diary entries, which are by definition subjective and get gradually more abstract as the book goes on, also means we can never really know whether we're hearing the truth. In other reviews I've come across the idea that the character of Ernessa is a hallucination, or a projection of the narrator herself, but I'm not entirely convinced. I think it's more likely that the events are merely distorted by the narrator's overwhelming grief over her father's death, which she channels into her preoccupation with Ernessa and Lucy's friendship. But the descriptions of vampire attacks and Ernessa's growing influence over her victim is also very real - that said, perhaps the fact that the story mirrors Carmilla so closely from the point at which she reads the novella onwards is a clue that the vampire element is all in her head.

However you choose to interpret it, The Moth Diaries is a very important and interesting addition to the vampire canon. It is perhaps not for the faint-hearted: there are scenes that are disturbing and gruesome, not least because they come from our allegedly unbalanced narrator. But I think more than anything else, this novel captures what it is to be a teenage girl and all the passions and anxieties that entails.

Rating: 10/10

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