Only four books into the year and two have already aroused strong feelings. David Vann’s Dirt was not a happy experience nor, I’m sure, was it meant to be given that it’s a study in what happens when parents smother their children in controlling affection, but the final section in which the mother gets her comeuppance ground on and on until I felt like I’d been hit over the head. In contrast, Ghost Moth, Michèle Forbes’ exquisitely written debut, handles love, loss and silence with a delicate, nuanced touch. Set in Northern Ireland, it opens in 1969 with the striking image of a woman transfixed with fear at the sudden appearance of a seal alongside her and her realisation that she’s swum far too far out to sea. The woman is Katherine Bedford and Ghost Moth is the story of her marriage told in alternating narratives, twenty years apart. In 1949 Katherine becomes engaged to George, an engineer who is also in the fire service, solid, reliable and deeply in love with her. Beautiful, with a fine singing voice, Katherine is playing Carmen in an amateur dramatics production. She and Tom, the tailor fitting her for her costume, embark on a passionate affair, beginning on the evening of Katherine’s engagement to George. As the novel unfolds, snapshots of Katherine’s affair alternate with scenes from married life with George and her four children until both strands are brought together in an understanding of how the silence surrounding the events of 1949 has permeated the marriage, becoming almost a third-party in it. All this may sound a little run of the mill domestic novel but it’s very much more than that. It’s also about the coming of the Troubles which ripped through Northern Ireland in the 1970s: the Bedfords are Catholics – George, a convert – living in Protestant Belfast, something which has its little difficulties in 1949 but is enough to get rotten eggs thrown at you in 1969, and far, far worse shortly after that. By playing events through the Bedfords’ lives at the very beginning of the violence rather than putting it centre stage, Forbes makes them all the more chilling in their prefiguring of what is to come.
From its striking opening sequence to its heartrending closing passage, Forbes’ novel is beautifully expressed, so accomplished that it’s hard to believe that it’s her first. She has a knack for arresting images – the seal of the opening sequence, the white ‘ghost moth’ collectors of dead souls, a lie sitting ‘like another presence in the room, expecting to be fed’ – and her use of language is often painterly: the sun makes the family ‘all look like their faces have been buttered’. Very early days, I know, but I would love to see this on a shortlist later in the year – Forbes has already won awards for her short stories. And if the name Michèle Forbes’ seems familiar you may know her from either TV or the stage where she’s been acting since 1983.