“To anyone who wonders whether it is possible to survive adolescence, this is as much as I can offer of reassurance.” So begins Rachel Klein’s dark and disturbing first novel. Told through the page of a sixteen year-old girl’s journal, The Moth Diaries is an unsettling and provocative portrait of obsession and fear.
In the hothouse atmosphere of an exclusive girls’ boarding school during the late sixties, political activism, social revolution, and the war in Vietnam might never have happened. Nothing existed outside the girls and the school where it was all too easy to confuse fantasy and reality; friendship and lust; dreaming and wakefulness. And just as easy for the unnamed narrator, isolated with her increasingly obsessive musings, to imagine that a schoolmate was slowly destroying her friend and roommate. But what was the truth? That Ernessa was a vampire responsible not only for Lucy’s mysterious and wasting illness but for a series of other disasters at the school as well? Or that the narrator, fragile and unstable, had intricately constructed her own gothic nightmare? Thirty years later, rereading her journal, she is no more certain than we are.
Brilliantly conceived and compellingly readable, The Moth Diaries will haunt readers long after they’ve turned the final page.
Probably the only thing you should know about The Moth Diariesis that when I sat down to write this review, I spent the first 30 minutes composing a nine part list of questions, subquestions, and subsubquestions about what the hell I just read.
I seriously have no idea. And I really really like that I have no idea.
A diverse mélange of genres—boarding school tale, coming of age story, vampire gothic (well, maybe…), psychological thriller—The Moth Diaries resists easy definition. What is this book? What is it even about? And most pressingly, what does it all mean?
Although this novel eschews certainties, I’ll venture to say that it’s about the tenuousness of teenage identity. As the 16 year-old unnamed narrator chronicles her junior year at boarding school, she constantly probes those common almost-adult questions: who am I, who do I want to be, who am I expected to be?
It’s also about jealousy. The hateful jealousy the narrator feels towards Ernessa, a new student who dazzles her peers with her deconstruction of Nietzsche and her apathy towards school rules, leads her to label Ernessa as a vampire. Whether or not Ernessa truly is a vampire—indeed whether or not Ernessa even actually exists—depends on your appraisal of the narrator’s deteriorating mental state as she grows more and more jealous. In many ways, Ernessa seems to be a facsimile of the narrator—both are intelligent Jewish girls with dead dads and accompanying outsider cachet—though Ernessa is the more content, confident facsimile. She is simply a better, truer version of the narrator, and this self-assuredness may just inspire the narrator to suffer a psychotic break and persecute Ernessa as an abomination, a supernatural other who sleeps in a coffin.
This jealousy is compounded by the microenvironment of the narrator’s boarding school. Most of the drama unrolls in a single dormitory hallway. And so the novel is about the destructiveness of isolated groups. A small social circle leads us to study others and ourselves too closely. No one can really like herself or other people when viewed so intimately. No one can contain jealousies in such a limited environment. The narrator’s delusions thus don’t seem delusional but reasonable. Perhaps anyone’s skin can adopt a pale, heliophobic sheen when being observed daily, for hours, at a distance of less than a few meters. It’s only normal.
The Moth Diaries is ambiguous, rewarding repeated close readings. Klein’s writing is exquisite. Ethereal yet harsh, it is the gospel of a girl, a faithful record of how she sees things to truly be. True or not, these are her words. The prose suffocates you with its terrible insularity. You are caught in the narrator’s nightmare. Whether the nightmare is real or self-created is unimportant, because you are caught in it.