There's something inherently sinister about moths. Unlike their diurnal cousins, moths lurk about in the dark, brushing against bare arms, fluttering madly around porch lights, and hitching rides indoors on unsuspecting hosts who then have to hunt them down and kill them.
Maybe not everyone shares my aversion to moths, but plenty of people do --- and when Virginia Stone, the narrator of THE SISTER, reveals her lifelong near-obsession with moths, that was certainly a good tip-off that Poppy Adams's debut novel is not just a simple tale of a reunion between two long-estranged sisters. Indeed, as countless secrets unfold through the dispassionate voice of its narrator, before too long the book reveals itself to be just as sinister as those creepy moths.
Since the death of her mother and the subsequent dementia of her father, Virginia, now an old woman, has lived alone in Bulbarrow Court, the family's crumbling, ancient manor house, now cold (because she can't afford to pay the heating bills) and nearly empty (because she has sold almost all the family's furniture to make money). The only part of the house that remains intact is the attic, which is filled with the specimens of thousands of moths and butterflies, evidence of the family study of lepidoptery, an obsession that has stayed with Virginia since learning about moths and butterflies at her father's knee.
Into Virginia's compulsively ordered existence comes her younger sister Vivien, who has not returned to Bulbarrow Court since leaving as a young woman in the wake of a family crisis. Virginia does not know why Vivien, an unsettling presence with her styled hair, her fashionable clothing, her cell phone and her tiny dog, has returned home after so long. All she understands is that Vivien's arrival has thrown her tidy world --- and her personal sense of the past --- into disorder.
THE SISTER is so controlled in its storytelling, shifting back and forth seamlessly between Virginia's memories of the past and her behavior in the present, that it's hard to believe this is Poppy Adams's debut novel. Virginia is a classic example of the unreliable narrator, one so blinded by her own self-deception, so limited by her coldly methodical scientific mind, that she remains nearly unaware of her own situation. "If you were born unaware, at least you'd be blissfully ignorant," she reflects as she considers the purely instinctual moth. "It's not as if you're going to wake up one day and suddenly discover yourself." For Virginia, all of life is a scientific process that follows a pre-ordained formula. The result, in her case, culminates in a truly chilling conclusion.
Poppy Adams is a documentary filmmaker, and THE SISTER, with its strong sense of place and its vivid moth and butterfly imagery, is cinematic in its vision. She shows real promise as a novelist of psychological suspense, akin to such popular authors as Ruth Rendell, Morag Joss and Minette Walters.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011