Book Review: Mothlight by Adam Scovell
Adam Scovell’s debut novel Mothlight is a first-person introspective journey of understanding how a personal identity is informed and shaped by other people. As if trying to sharpen the focus of this exploration, Scovell isolates the most important details of his narrator’s life and inspects them closely. The narrator is Thomas, who sifts through old photographs and his memories in order to tell the story of his relationship with a much older woman, Phyllis Ewans, with whom he shared, above all, an academic interest in moths and a passion for walking. He starts by telling the story of the first time he met Phyllis Ewans and her older sister Billie, who were acquaintances of his grandparents when he was a young boy in Cheshire, and goes on to describe how he reconnected with Phyllis years later when they had both moved to London.
In London, Thomas holds a research position at a university and spends most of his days studying moths. This interest was first sparked when he first saw the dozens of moth displays at the Ewans’ house in Cheshire, and he seems to have subconsciously internalised the influence Phyllis had on him. He also frequently walks the Welsh countryside, often looking for moth specimens. When he is doing neither, he pays visits to an ageing Miss Ewans, and talks to her about various aspects of his research and their shared background and experience in lepidopterology. As her health deteriorates, Thomas prepares for her death and starts reflecting on their relationship.
Mothlight is a novel written with the style and sensibility of a literary memoir. It is as much an exercise in self-exploration as it is an exercise in memory. Thomas guides the reader, perhaps unintentionally, through his past by highlighting specific elements, and leaving out a multitude of details. Very few names are revealed throughout the book, to the point where it seems to be populated solely by him and Phyllis; his activities are restricted to walking, research, and visiting Phyllis, but even in the case of the latter, the conversations are often summarised in description and are rarely presented in dialogue form. Everything – Cheshire and London, the university where he works, the countryside, his visits at Miss Ewans’ house, and even Miss Ewans herself – is funnelled through his perception and recollection. Often his memories are aided by photographs (printed in the book) and help form the story. This use of photographs is reminiscent of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, a novel known for the way it explores the past and tries to understand how memories form identity. We are often told more about Phyllis from one of the photographs than from an undocumented account provided by Thomas.
Particularly in the second half of the novel, Thomas is preoccupied not only with understanding Miss Ewans from her archives and old photographs, but also with an eerie feeling he has that he is her. After recognising her influence in his character, his internal journey becomes about differentiating himself from her in order to establish his identity. Sometimes it seems like he was always drawn to Miss Ewans and shaped his interests and activities after this attraction, but it always seems involuntary and happening without him realising it. It is only in retrospect that he sees how this relationship has shaped who he is, and identifying the important details of this influence becomes central to his now-active act of asserting his self.
Mothlight is often experimental in the way it tells the story and brings the character of Thomas on the page. Adam Scovell’s writing makes it easy for Thomas’ train of thought to hook you and bring you on board as he explores his relationship with Phyllis Ewans.
Mothlight by Adam Scovell is published by Influx Press and comes out on 7 February.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.