Friday, September 28, 2012

Review: The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein

At an exclusive girls' boarding school, a sixteen-year-old girl records her most intimate thoughts in a diary. The object of her obsession is her room-mate, Lucy Blake, and Lucy's friendship with their new and disturbing classmate. Ernessa is a mysterious presence with pale skin and hypnotic eyes. Around her swirl dark secrets and a series of ominous disasters. As fear spreads through the school, fantasy and reality mingle into a waking nightmare of gothic menace, fuelled by the lusts and fears of adolescence.

And at the centre of the diary is the question that haunts all who read it: Is Ernessa really a vampire? Or is the narrator trapped in her own fevered imagination?*

I like psychological thrillers, especially ones where even the reader doesn’t know what’s going on. Nothing like a good disorientating experience to get the blood pumping, am I right?

The premise of “The Moth Diaries” promises just that - a difficult, is-she-or-is-she-not ride that will leave you breathless. In some ways, it delivers - it is quite a moody, gothic read. In other, however, I just don’t think it fares so good.

On the one hand, this is a very nice take on vampire lore, going back to its roots and exploring the themes that make the vampire such a compelling literary figure. For those of us who have grown tired of the cutesy, watered-down versions we’ve been getting in these past few years, this will be a welcome reprieve. The narrator (who is never named, I believe), is a very interesting figure with lots of creepy potential… which is just never met.

The narrator in Klein’s novel is a girl who has lost her father, whose mother is distant, and who latches onto her roommate Lucy in a manner that’s very unhealthy. In a way, the question throughout the novel is: “Who is the real vampire?” In a way, it reminds me of Zoe Heller’s “Notes on a Scandal” - a more adult book that doesn’t have any vampires in it, but one that is still very compelling because of its characters.

Unfortunately, that’s why “The Moth Diaries” didn’t work so well for me - the MC isn’t strong enough to carry this novel on her shoulders. Barbara from “Notes on a Scandal” is sly, bitter, clingy, abused, abusing, abandoned, angry and absolutely fascinating. She would have you sympathize with her in one moment, and then stare in shock as she breathes fire and brimstone all over the place. She’s charming, but she’s also calculative, she’s scary, but she’s convincing because she believes every last thing she says, and she makes you believe it too.

By contrast, the narrator in “The Moth Diaries” is never sympathetic. I can’t recall any particular instance where I sympathized with her, or bought into her whole “My only best friend is acting strange” spiel, because she clearly only thinks about herself. The problem with unlikeable main characters is that the reader needs to be invested in the story, and from that girl’s point of view, the story is just not that interesting.

I think Rachel Klein had a solid concept going into this, but ended up ramming it into the ground thanks to her completely insufferable narrator. Still, it’s a nice return to the roots of vampire lore (the book often references “Camilla”), so for readers starved for some good old-fashion gothic horror, it’s the way to go.

*Images and synopsis from Goodreads.

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