Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Behaviour of Moths

Manchester Museum Café, 25 October 2008

Science, nature / nurture, obsession and misplaced perceptions were some of the themes discussed at last night’s event. It was a cold and rainy autumnal evening and we gathered in Manchester Museum’s café with mugs of tea and cake to hear Poppy Adams read from her first novel, ‘The Behaviour of Moths’. She was joined by Phil Rispin who is one of the museum’s entomologists and Jane Mathieson, from Time to Read.

For anyone who hasn’t read it, the novel is narrated by 70 year old Ginny who lives in a dilapidated mansion, her ancestral home, in Dorset. Ginny is a recluse and has lived in the house all her life. She is also a lepidopterist – a moth expert. The novel spans the weekend when Ginny’s estranged sister Vivi comes to stay after an absence of 47 years. It is set both in the present and in the 40s and 50s of Ginny's childhood.

After reading an extract from the book, Poppy described herself as a ‘scientist at heart’ and admitted to feeling like ‘a bit of an impostor’ in literary circles. However, I think it is this precisely this scientific perspective which adds a richness to the book and particularly to the character of Ginny.

When Jane suggested that at times the novel is quite dark and sinister, Poppy told us that this had been the view of a number of her readers. However, it wasn't something that had occurred to her as she was writing it. Her focus had been on Ginny and during the writing process it was as though she had entered Ginny's head. The plot had been secondary.

Unsurprisingly, one of the questions Poppy is often asked is why, being a scientist, she decided to write a novel. It is a question she struggles to answer but puts it down to being a visual thinker and a daydreamer. She talked further about the crafting of the prose and getting the rhythm of the sentences just right.

And what about the moths? The moths feature in the novel because both Ginny and her father are moth experts and become obsessed with them. Moths become woven into story and are used in numerous metaphors, particularly in relation to Ginny. Scientists believe that moths have no awareness of themselves and have no reason or free will. The similarities between the moths and the character of Ginny become evident towards the end of the novel as she struggles to come to terms with her own misplaced perceptions of her life.

Phil Rispin provided the ‘science bit’ and an interesting insight into the vast number of species in the UK. He also brought with him a number of specimens which we looked at once the discussion was over. Each moth had been carefully labelled with page references from the book.

Poppy Adams is currently working on her second novel. She was very guarded about the content and admitted to being superstitious about revealing too much. But from what we could glean, the novel will be set in the present day in London. Surprisingly, science will not be playing a big part.

To read more about Poppy Adams, read Katie Popperwell’s interview at

‘The Behaviour of Moths’ by Poppy Adams is published by Virago Press and is in the shops now.


Jenny Hudson also blogs at and


reetajenet said...

From her lookout on the first floor, Ginny watches and waits for her adored younger sister to return to the crumbling mansion that was once their idyllic childhood home. Vivien has not stepped foot in the house since she left, forty seven years ago; Ginny, the reclusive lepidopterist, has rarely ventured outside it. The remembrance of their youth, of loss, and of old rivalries plays across Ginny’s mind.

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