4 April 2012

Review 26: The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein

"At an exclusive girls' boarding school, a sixteen-year-old girl records her most intimate thoughts in a diary. The object of her obsession is her roommate, Lucy Blake, and Lucy's friendship with their new and disturbing classmate. Ernessa is a mysterious presence with pale skin and hypnotic eyes. Around her swirl dark secrets and a series of ominous and violent disasters. As fear spreads through the school, fantasy and reality mingle into a waking nightmare of gothic menace, fuelled by the lusts and fears of adolescence. And at the centre of the diary is the question that haunts all those who read it: Is Ernessa really a vampire? Or is the narrator trapped in her own fevered imagination?" 

I bought this for the school library thinking that it would go down really well with my students. I skimmed through the first pages just to see whether it seemed well-written and was hooked and ended up reading the whole thing myself before it even made it onto my library shelves. Klein really has a way with language, the book is super creepy and involving and you never quite know what is going on. The question at the end of the blurb about whether Ernessa is really a vampire seems flippant and silly when mentioned in passing it is in fact compelling and unnerving. This was a much better read than I expected and is very readable,  despite its flaws, and not your typical teenage vampire novel, in fact not really a vampire novel at all.

First Line: 'When Dr. Karl Wolff first suggesting publishing the journal that I kept during my junior year in boarding school, I though I hadn't heard him correctly.'

Our unnamed heroine is returning to her second year of an elite girls boarding school. Interestingly, in the film that is coming out later this year, she is given the name Rebecca which I like to think is a nod to the unnamed heroine of the novel Rebecca. She first attended after her father committed suicide and her mother struggled to cope. The girls surrounding her are all touched with tragedy, sadness and neglect to some extent. The exception to this seems to be Lucy, our narrator's new roommate. The two girls are excited to move from their first year dingy rooms into the more spacious and luxurious rooms reserved for older girls and the narrator begins the year full of hope for the future and a determination to do well. We get glimpses from the outset that she tends towards introversion and neuroses but it is not until new girl, Ernessa, starts to get closer to Lucy that the narrator begins to really unravel.

Amongst mysterious deaths, seemingly impossible events and Lucy getting more and more pale and ill the closer she gets to Ernessa, and spurred on by the supernatural fiction on the reading list for one of her English classes, the narrator starts to entertain the thought that Ernessa is a vampire. The narrator becomes more and more obsessed with Ernessa and starts to alienate the other girls as she obsesses over Ernessa and Lucy's friendship and Ernessa's aloofness and pretensions with the other girls. The central concept is really whether Erness truly is a vampire or the narrator is having a breakdown and it is very compelling and never answered. It is further complicated by the fact that we are told this story through the narrator's diary so we have to pick apart the facts from the feelings, the obsessions from the realities. Is this set in our world or in a world where the supernatural occurs? Is this a psychological novel or a fantasy novel? I found myself believing one side, then switching to the other and then right at the end flipping back.

There are some truly unnerving things that happen and despite the slow pace of the plot I was gruesomely fascinated by Ernessa, just as the narrator is. The scene involving the titular moths is creepy and a horrible accident really get under your skin. Klein really successfully creates a pervasive atmosphere that leaks out of the novel and sticks with you. There are the familiar feelings of teenage angst and confusion mixed in with cruelty and the suggestion of the supernatural. The narrator flings us around wildly as we root for her to save Lucy one day before she slides further into her obsession and take things too far, there is one particular incident which is really quite unpleasant that was probably the turning point for me on what was really happening.

I could have done with the novel being slightly shorter and more condensed as we do get some ideas rehashed and replayed a few too many times when the author has already made her point. Some of the events and language are a little heavy-handed as well as I found that the book worked best when it held back and let the narrator's doubts and obsessions invade your head.

A vampire book that is not even necessarily a vampire book depending on how what you decide is really going on, Klein adeptly creates a claustrophobic novel of teenage femininity and obsession.

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