MOTHTOWN by Caroline Hardaker (BOOK REVIEW)
“Melt everything down to a great white blank. Eat anything that oozes out. No one knows how it all goes in Mothtown, and no one ever comes back to tell us. So, all you can do is practice being nothing and then hope that when you get there, you disappear.”
Mothtown by Caroline Hardaker is a book which begs not be defined into one single category. Is this sci-fi, horror, coming of age, fantasy or mystery? Well, on the surface it weaves together all those genres, but underneath it is much more. Hardaker superbly immerses readers into a story that is both strange and haunting but also raw and incredibly tender.
Something is very wrong with our world. Disappearances are becoming more frequent, bodies are being found in remote places, “The Modern Problem” is spreading and encroaching upon all. As a young child, David Porter doesn’t understand what’s happening, his mother and father turn off the news in a bid to shelter him from the darkness, his sister Emily refuses to share her knowledge, and the darkness begins to creep in anyway. The only person who truly understands David is his grandfather, Francis Porter. To David his grandfather is his home, so when he’s suddenly no longer around David’s world is turned upside down. His parents say his grandfather died, but this is not something David can accept. For Francis was researching into other worlds and if he’s found a new world to escape into then David wants to join him.
The novel simultaneously switches between ‘After’, where we witness David as an adult and ‘Before’ where we meander through David’s childhood, giving readers an in-depth view of his life. Through young David’s eyes we get a picture of him as incredibly lonely; his mother and father largely ignore him, becoming frustrated when he doesn’t conform to their social expectations, his sister Emily, whom he adores and looks up to, in the throws of being a teenager blows hot and cold towards him and the children at school avoid him, laugh at him. His only companion in an otherwise isolated life was his grandfather who David utterly idolised. Their closeness is something Hardaker portrays as quite special, having their own little world with their own language of clicks and looks. The fateful day when he disappeared left a hole in David’s life, one which never healed.
“Grandad smelled like iron. Like something unearthed and laid in the light.
I used to think it strange that one place can be home to one person, but not to another. Grandad’s office at the university was my cave.”
In a lot of ways Mothtown reminded me of the absolutely stunning Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. Both have an otherworldly element to them, they both touch upon themes of loneliness, grief and belonging, they both have amazing lyrical prose. An electric charge hums throughout this novel, you can feel it building and escalating as more of David’s journey develops, the more he disconnects from the world around him the more his fixations become intense, a sense of surrealism permeates, a sense of slowly drowning in a world where he doesn’t quite fit, as he desperately searches for doorways to other places to belong. David was a character my heart broke for, if only someone had truly tried to help him, had tried to make him feel seen, heard, loved. How different could his life have been? There’s so much that’s thought-provoking and powerful about his character.
“Couldn’t they see me falling? Why weren’t they looking?”
Hardaker mirrors the increasing disappearance of people throughout Britain, which runs throughout the backdrop of this story, to David rapidly disappearing inside of himself, losing himself to mental decline. David is different, his thoughts, feelings and ways of seeing the world are different to those around him and without his grandad to anchor him, David ultimately unravels. Of course in his childhood this is something that’s noticed but never really addressed properly. Yet Hardaker doesn’t just limit the portrayal of depression, loneliness and grief to David alone. David sees it in those around his village, the ‘mudmen’ and those sent to ‘the blue house’. Neighbours and priests pass the afflictions off as ‘The Modern Problem’, without ever seriously looking at what that is. How true to life is that? How often does mental health, autism and hidden disabilities get overlooked, dismissed, passed off as something that only happens to other people? This is what’s so special about Mothtown, Hardaker uses fantasy concepts to reflect upon dark, sorrowful themes.
“I sometimes feel like I’m locked in a circle. What’s that creature, the worm that swallows its own tail? The ouroboros. Which bit is the beginning, and which is the end? And when they meet so seamlessly, what difference does it make?”
This leads me to discuss why I find Hardaker’s stories so compelling, though I cannot pinpoint it to one single aspect. She’s an author who can invoke our senses, and in Mothtown this is done particularly well. From visualising the bright orange of David’s grandad’s jumper, which contrasts the otherwise grey and dismal setting, to the smells of rust and coffee, to the sounds of rustling and beating wings. The accompanying illustrations by Chris Riddell also heighten the story, visually representing the light and dark parts of David’s life, the things which haunted or comforted him. The illustrations help to immerse the reader further, to truly see the world as David had. I also loved that we often gain meaning in new and surprising ways—for example there’s a scene where Hardaker describes visiting a foreign place like Mothtown as so alien that anything you take from it is essentially stealing, even the air you breathe, which I had never really thought of before but found so true. In fact Moths hold much meaning throughout but in a myriad of ambiguous ways, and what is real and what is metaphorical is left to the reader to decide. Hardaker is an author who tells a story using imagery, symbolism and allegory, building a puzzle readers can dig deep into, interpret and watch unfold. What unfolds in this novel is incredibly sad, I sobbed my eyes out at the end, but we are also left with a great sense of hope.
Layer after layer Hardaker builds a beautifully poignant and mournful tale of the bond between a grandson and his grandfather, of escaping worlds and journeys of transformation. Ultimately, Mothtown is a tale about discovering how to belong. Hardaker doesn’t write a book you simply read, she delivers a book you experience.
“Why won’t you catch my eye? Is it my honesty that makes your skin crawl or is it what you see when you look at me? I dare
Look at me.”
ARC provided by Caroline at Angry Robot Books in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy. All quotes used are taken from an early ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
Mothtown will be released 14th November 2023 but you can pre-order your copy HERE