A young singer falls into an affair against the backdrop of the Irish Troubles.
Irish writer Michèle Forbes’ debut novel, “Ghost Moth,” is tightly focused on Katherine, a promising amateur singer in 1949 Belfast. She is engaged to pedestrian brute George but falls into a whirlwind affair with brash costumer Tom. The narrative jumps between the days leading up to Katherine’s operatic debut as Carmen, and 20 years later, as she lives a fairly calm and happy life offstage, with George and their four children. In 1969, however, Belfast is devolving into the belligerent factions that will redefine life in the city, and the tensions in the town parallel Katherine’s own internal struggles.
After losing Tom, Katherine moved into the cocoon of her marriage. Years later, her youngest daughter, Elsa, is on the brink of spreading her wings and taking off into a wider world. Among the strongest threads in “Ghost Moth” is the difficult friendship between Catholic Elsa and Protestant Isabel, who wavers between daring to be mean because that is how pubescent friendship works, and feeling compelled to be mean because public enmity tells her she should. Meanwhile, Elsa has yet to fully realize that her parents are people with pasts and secret thoughts, making each schoolgirl thing she dares to hide from them a moment of great import in her mind. Before the year is out, Elsa’s world will widen enormously. And as George heads out for long dutiful nights fighting fires and civil unrest, Katherine thinks back to her months with Tom and the secrets that she and George both brought to their marriage.
Forbes uses evocative language to highlight the symbolism — she refers to ghosts or moths or ghost moths throughout, interspersed with passages about other natural, ethereal things. As Katherine and Tom tentatively explore their attraction, a moth “beat its wings against the shade in a furious patter.” This prefaces an intense speech from Tom, describing how he will design and construct Katherine’s stage costume, while revealing how deeply he has been thinking of her and of her body: “My shears will slice effortlessly through the salmon-colored silk and its lining of lemon sateen, and through the mandarin-and-cherry colored bouclé wool, for the blades are obscenely sharp and the cloth will surrender easily.” The moth is certainly silenced by this imagery. (The completed creation silences the rest of the cast, who are arrayed in postwar mend-and-make-do costumes while Katherine’s dress glows with newness.) While the imagery often overshadows the plot, Forbes’ writing is lovely and Katherine and Elsa are both captivating characters, a pleasure to know during these discrete slices of their lives.