Review | Mothlight by Adam Scovell


Adam Scovell’s debut novel is narrated by Thomas, a young man who hallucinates the memories of his deceased mentor, Phyllis Ewans. Phyllis is a lepidopterist who lived in Thomas’s town in Cheshire when he was a child, and they reconnect in London after Thomas has also become an academic who studies moths. He travels and researches with her as she ages, and supervises her care before her death, becoming so essential to the reclusive woman that he inherits her house and many of her possessions. Thomas’s reality bends as he clears out Phyllis’s house and attempts to learn secrets which she never revealed to him in life. Thomas envisions landscapes he has never seen, only to see identical places in Phyllis’s photographs; he feels, and sees, a hand holding his while studying certain mementos; he overhears conversations when he is alone. But elements of insanity and the supernatural are countered by photographs, placed throughout the novel, of Phyllis, her sister, and the landscapes she visits. Scovell reveals in his afterword that the photographs are originals, from the real-life Phyllis who was friends with his grandmother. Mothlight is a novel poised between reality and fantasy, and Scovell’s presentation of half-formed truths makes reality as distorted for the reader as it is for Thomas.

From the beginning of the novel, it is clear that Thomas seeks answers; his academic’s mind analyses his childhood and all the photographs he finds. He blames his disinterest in Phyllis’s older sister, Billie Ewans, on Phyllis’s unflattering memories of the woman. He analyses the photographs he finds, from their state of preservation to their composition, to gauge how significant they are to Phyllis’s memory. He compares the records of caught and mounted moths to the gruesome details of a murder mystery novel. Scovell characterises Thomas’s voice with calm, formal language—even when Thomas is hallucinating, or is anxious about Phyllis’s past, he uses long sentences that distance the reader from the “traumatic effect upon [his] own psyche” (43). The effect is not clarifying, but distancing; the reader is as far from Thomas as Thomas is from Phyllis. Human connection is difficult, if not impossible, in Mothlight. Thomas fails several times to ask about Phyllis’s past while she is alive, and becomes so frustrated and obsessed that he decides it will be easier to learn about her after she is dead.

Death is central to the novel, as Thomas’s narration all takes place after Phyllis passes away. Phyllis announces the necessity of death for her work as a lepidopterist while riding the tube with Thomas; Billie announces her imminent death while she and Phyllis sit in their living room; Thomas notes a connection between himself and Phyllis through photographic evidence that they visited the same graveyard in North Wales. The motif of a swarm of moths which obscures Thomas’s vision and hearing follows him from the burial of Billie Ewans, during his childhood, to the last pages of the novel. Scovell’s imagery is haunting, as well. He describes a mounted moth’s wings as “dripping away from the thorax” (14), Thomas’s feelings towards Phyllis as “parasitic passion” (28), and the withered skin of Billie’s body underneath the makeup she always wore. Scovell also details the tedious paperwork after death. This is observed by Thomas as a child, when Phyllis’s detachment about her sister’s death obligates Thomas’s grandparents to file all the papers. Thomas must take on the work himself after Phyllis’s death, as he fills out her paperwork and catalogues decades of moth specimens.

There is still love and warmth for Scovell’s characters, however. Thomas’s strong connection to Phyllis is based on their shared interest in moths and walking, and he describes her warm treatment of him. When Phyllis is too old to walk, he takes her to National Trust properties in a wheelchair. One especially touching passage narrates Thomas’s plan to show Phyllis a wall covered in vines that attract a certain moth, hoping she will appreciate the sight. She does, and Thomas observes the rejuvenating effect of the species which defined her career. Phyllis also experiences happiness before Thomas. He finds an old love letter among her possessions, and several of the hallucinations he experiences are of an affectionate ghost who embraces and comforts him. The mystery which Thomas follows until the end of the novel is about the identity of this ghost, and their importance to Phyllis. He finds several photographs, half-destroyed and hidden in the leaves of random books, which document an unspoiled era of Phyllis’s life.

In the end, uncertainty characterises Mothlight. Thomas does learn Phyllis’s secret, but not in the detail that he wishes. Scovell’s last lines emphasise that the details will remain undiscovered. The novel’s origins in the true story of Scovell’s grandparents’ friend is also incomplete; in the novel, the reason for Thomas’s grandparents’ closeness with Phyllis and Billie is not explained. The sisters jump from customers of his grandfather’s travelling general store to friends so close that his grandmother organises Billie’s funeral. While this relationship is probably clear to Scovell himself, it is not explained to the reader. Thomas’s increasing insanity, and his denial of it, is not resolved over the course of the novel. He loses his post as a university researcher and perplexes his grandparents by bonding with Phyllis after her treatment of Billie, and there is no evidence that his personal or professional life will improve. This reflects the first photograph of Phyllis in the novel: she sits with a dog in her lap, her face obscured. It is the only photograph which is not analysed through Thomas’s narration. Phyllis’s image eludes definition as much as her mystery eludes explanation. Thomas’s obsession dooms him to the same unresolved state in which Phyllis Ewans, living with a romantic secret for decades, was obligated to exist.

Words by Emma Deshpande.

For more information on Mothlight and Adam Scovell, visit Influx Press.

To discover more content exclusive to our print and app editions, subscribe to The London Magazine today from just £17.