Tuesday, 15 April 2014

THIS is how you do a vampire book: The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein

The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein The Moth Diaries (2002) by Rachel Klein

The Moth Diaries came into my life serendipitously. I saw someone mentioning it on Twitter - not even to me, just as part of a conversation that caught my attention (I wish I could remember who it was now, I should thank them) - and then, a couple of days later, I was in a secondhand bookshop and spotted a copy for £1. At that point, I wasn't sure it was the right kind of book for me, but the coincidence was too good to ignore. I am so glad I picked it up. This book was amazing and has immediately established itself as a new favourite.

As the title would suggest, it's presented in the form of a personal diary. An introduction from the narrator, written thirty years after the main events of the story, explains that its publication is the idea of her former psychiatrist, who believes the journal will be 'an invaluable addition to the literature on female adolescence'; all the names will be changed to protect the identities of those involved. At the time of writing her diary, the narrator is sixteen and a boarding student at what seems to be a prestigious and old-fashioned girls' school. She has for some time enjoyed a friendship with a classmate named Lucy; their bond is so strong that they have endeavoured to secure a shared suite, and at the very beginning of the book, the narrator looks forward to the year they will enjoy together. It's only a few days, however, before Lucy strikes up a new friendship with the enigmatic 'new girl' from across the hall, Ernessa. Tormented by jealousy, the narrator grows ever more suspicious of Ernessa, and - encouraged by an English course which focuses on novels of the supernatural - she becomes convinced the new arrival is, in fact, a vampire.

There is something truly magical about this book - it casts a spell. It is heavy with doom and dread, which is not to say it is dreary to read (far from it). It's so effectively gothic that I couldn't help but picture the school miles from civilisation and shrouded in mist, even though this is clearly not the case as the girls frequently travel to a neighbouring town. The atmosphere is suffocating: the boarders are pushed together, their lives are each other, they distance themselves from day students and are isolated from their families and (most of the time) from boys. Even in her meticulously detailed diary, the narrator is not always honest, casting doubt on her claims about Ernessa and Lucy, and making you wonder how much of her life is touched by fantasy. Are those occasional nightmarish experiences simply the product of an overactive imagination, fed by lurid stories? The characters' experiences illuminate the dark, strange part of this insular way of life, the flipside of the cheery image projected by most boarding school novels. But what The Moth Diaries does most effectively is to accurately recreate the sensations and emotions involved in being a teenage girl, a thing I think is very difficult and very, very rare. I have clear memories of a lot of the things I did, or that happened to me, when I was sixteen, not least because I kept diaries of my own, yet it's very rare for me to really and truly feel those memories in the context of the person I was then, with all the horrors and possibilities that time of my life entailed. I don't mean the specific experiences as much as the very specific atmospheres and attitudes of youth. This book, though, made me relive them.

Although this is a story about teenage girls, written from the point of view of a teenage girl, I am in two minds about whether it should be classed as young adult fiction. On one hand, it could certainly be read and appreciated by a teenager; on the other, I'm very, very glad I discovered and read it for the first time as an adult. If I'd read it as a teenager I think I would have been too close to it to understand it properly. My reaction (I imagine) would have been characterised by comparison and envy: I've never behaved like that with my friends; as if anybody would do that in real life; ugh, that's weird; come on, nobody seriously writes like that in their diary. The negative reviews I've come across seem to have mainly come from readers judging it in this way, reading it in the context of traditional YA. Reading it from an adult perspective and treating it as I would any other novel, I found it, well, sublime. I suspect that because the author has delved so deeply into her protagonist's teenage psyche, it needs to be read at an adult's arm's length to really make sense. (I find many YA books to be the opposite - the characters behave too much like adults and, because their actions are unrealistic, they work best when read by either their actual target audience or by adult readers who are able to inhabit that mindset with ease.)

There were only two things I didn't really like about the story. The first: the foreword and afterword by the adult version of the narrator, which serve only (as far as I can see) to frame the book as an adult novel rather than a YA one. Since the narrative is so powerful and effective on its own, the distinction doesn't matter, and this isn't necessary. The second: the involvement of Mr. Davies; to my mind, the story doesn't need any male characters at all, and would have been better without them. His involvement, minor though it is, slightly weakens it.

As far as I can tell, The Moth Diaries is Klein's only novel. I'm happy about that, it feels right - it's one of those books that stands on its own so well that it almost seems like it would be a shame if the author wrote any other fiction. (I'm aware there's also a film of it, which looks terrible and which I have no intention of seeing - the book is enough for me.) That the set-up is simple, the action sometimes mundane, is one of its strengths: it allows the mood and tone to shine through as the main strengths of the story. The Moth Diaries was published 12 years ago, and is mostly set in the mid-1970s (if one assumes the narrator's introduction was written in the 'present day'), but the narrative feels completely timeless, with the air of a classic. Perhaps that's the influence of all the classic literature the narrator reads and frequently references; in any case, it's a perfect match for the sombre flavour of the whole book.

Recommended if you enjoy books about vampires, boarding schools, and/or the intensity of friendships between adolescent girls. Recommended if you want to read a teen vampire novel that doesn't have anything to do with romance. Recommended if you want to read a teen vampire novel that is truly worth analysing, obsessing over and writing essays about. Recommended if you like modern fiction with a classic feel. Recommended if you want to read a book about sixteen-year-olds that will make you want to read Nietzsche, Proust and le Fanu, among others. Recommended if you like gothic fiction. Recommended if you like books.

Rating: 10/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

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