Twenty years after this novel earned acclaim and prizes in Winterbach's (The Book of Happenstance, 2011, etc.) native South Africa, it receives its first American publication, in translation from Afrikaans.
Beginning with the title, the novel steeps itself in metaphor and allegory. It isn’t about moths, but about a young woman who studies them (her sister, tellingly enough, studies stones), as her research brings her to an isolated South African community where she seems to attract the interest of every man in town (like moths to a flame?) and generates a variety of sexual tensions. There’s a backdrop of political repression and racial strife, but the focus remains on the woman and her struggle toward self-knowledge as she comes to terms with the secrets of her past. “Karolina was researching the survival strategies of this species of moth under these extreme circumstances,” the author writes, as the reader recognizes that survival strategies might prove more thematically significant than moths. When she introduces herself to the town’s leading lawyer by saying she “studied insects,” he replies ominously, “I shudder at the thought of all you may discover here.” And discover she does, learning about the power struggles among a bunch of men who all seem to want to have carnal relations with her (though one settles for dancing), as she chooses a self-styled Buddhist who explains that “[s]uffering and false perceptions are caused by an attachment to things....Everything one clings to unduly becomes an obstacle.” While she vacillates between wanting to start over and wishing she had never been born, she develops more of a feminist consciousness concerning her sexuality, issues of power and control, and her place among all these men, as the one who warned her against attachment becomes the sort of attachment he had advised avoiding: “Love tied her down and burdened her; it beset her in a new way, it invaded her, she was like a city under siege.”
Heavy-handed and belabored, the novel carries its own thematic burdens on its back.