Michèle Forbes’ lyrical debut novel, “Ghost Moth,” begins with a simple swim that turns dangerous in the Irish Sea, off the shoreline of Groomsport, a small town a half hour northeast of Belfast. The protagonist Katherine Bedford — a dedicated mother of four and wife of George, a city council worker and firefighter — is strangely transfixed by the seal that appears, then disappears underneath the water’s surface before she begins to struggle for her own life.
“They tread the cold sea together, Katherine and the seal,” writes the author in the opening chapter. “Above them, sandpipers drop their miserable cries as they fly. Splinters of high voices peak on the blue wind. In the distance, there is the low mechanical churr of a train. Around them, the sea continues its cool lamenting slap.”
Although her husband manages to rescue her from the strong currents, the strange event has a lasting impact on Katherine. That evening, she and her family return to their modest home in east Belfast on the verge of what turns out to be the tumultuous weeks of unrest and violence during the summer of 1969 that lead to the three-decade conflict of The Troubles between the Catholics and the Protestants. As we learn more about Katherine’s own struggles and past, we discover that she was an amateur opera singer who traded in her career to become a mother — and myriad unspoken tensions and secrets exist beneath her 15-year marriage to George.
As this well-crafted narrative unfolds, Forbes agilely alternates between 1969 and 1949, a few years after the end of World War II when the capital of Northern Ireland was a different kind of place — a more carefree city of bustling tearooms, crowded movie houses, and teeming streets with few concerns about spontaneous bombings or riots. During her youth, Katherine stars in a local opera production of “Carmen” at St. Anne’s Church Hall with dreams of performing on more illustrious stages. She meets a young tailor named Tom McKinley, who did the fittings for her elaborate costume. “She felt the nub of pressure from his fingers against her spine. His touch was as light as a barely spoken prayer.” An illicit romance ensues soon after Katherine agrees to marry George.
Without giving away too much of the plot, an interplay between the time periods reveals bits and pieces of Katherine and George’s shared history within the context of the escalating violence of The Troubles. In his part-time role as a firefighter, George is repeatedly called to perilous sights of bombings and fires while he and Katherine can barely speak about their tormented past. A Belfast-born actress with experience in film, theater, and television, Forbes draws from her own professional and personal background to imbue her protagonist with authentic energy and humanity. She effectively uses subtle descriptive moments to capture the melancholy tenor of the narrative. After the Bedford children hold a neighborhood fair in their backyard, Forbes writes: “The fortune-teller’s tent looms in the cool, transparent haze of the garden in front of them like the last surviving pavilion of a lost crusade, tilting on its axis, a rickety vestige of defeat, its lank flaps subdued further with light droplets of morning rain.”
For the most part, a steady lyricism propels this engaging story. The author deftly explores the private and public struggles of this particular Catholic family with vivid, poetic language. “From where the car is now, on the steepest part of their road, she can see the city spreading out below her,” writes Forbes from 9-year-old Elsa’s perspective. “It reminds her of the burning bus, of the two alphabets she needs coming home from school, of the angry man with the stick in his hand and the look of vengeance on his face.”
By the end, the truth — the brutal and the beautiful — rises to the surface of this eloquent novel.