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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Elusive Moth

Ingrid Winterbach

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Title: The Elusive Moth
Author: Ingrid Winterbach
Genre: Novel
Written: 1993 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 184 pages
Original in: Afrikaans
Availability: The Elusive Moth - US
The Elusive Moth - UK
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The Elusive Moth - India
  • Afrikaans title: Karolina Ferreira
  • Translated by Iris Gouws and the author
  • Originally published under the pseudonym Lettie Viljoen

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Our Assessment:

B : nicely on edge, but doesn't go far enough beyond that

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Elusive Moth centers on some four months entomologist Karolina Ferreira spends in the South African town of Voorspoed, a place she had come to for summer vacations with her family a quarter of a century earlier. She is: "doing research on the distribution and breeding patterns" of a specific kind of moth; the work takes a while: as she explains:

the moths are elusive. That's why they're so good at surviving in extreme conditions.
       This isn't a bug-book, or a science story: the moth-chasing remains largely incidental. Instead, Ferreira's test-subject, closely observed, is also herself; her chosen environment a testing one, as if she too needs the challenges of extreme conditions to find her true self. Even though, when she arrived: "she had been complete and content -- or so she had thought", there's a lot of inner turmoil left to her -- brought to the surface and exacerbated by external circumstances here. There's a constant sense of menace in this place: "Anything might happen", she realizes -- and, in a way, she seems to want that.
       Her father was an entomologist too, and she still seems to feel a need to prove herself to him, though (or because) the relationship ended badly. Science provides a reliable hold, the twenty-nine orders which make up the neat taxonomy of insects a reduction much easier to rely on than the complexities that are human life and relationships. (Her younger sister, who also became a scientist, went to greater extremes: "she cared for nothing but stones", her own work taking her to: "one of the remotest corners of the earth".)
       In Voorspoed Ferreira works together with Basil, who seeks out natural remedies among the local plant life; she takes a lover; plays snooker; regularly goes dancing; and generally observes the locals and the tensions of local life. Violence is in the air, and there are several deaths -- accidental and less accidental ones -- along the way -- but then Karolina is a bit obsessed by the subject anyway: "'I think of death all the time,' she said. 'Whenever I'm not thinking of moths.'" Several of the characters are distinctly menacing, too, making for a constant sense of tension.
       Winterbach balances sustained tension and (temporary) release well. Ferreira has a casual sexual affair, befriends several people, even reaches out to her (very distant) sister. She observes the local goings-on, but with the limited understanding of the outsider; others have a better (in some cases almost unreal) sense of what is going on, but like a scientist she remains observant, if not too actively meddlingly experimental. Yet ultimately The Elusive Moth doesn't seem to go far enough with its sense of menace -- or, at least, its resolution (because there is an explosive confrontation, and a resolution of sorts).
       The novel is part character study, part contemporary (when it was written, in the early 1990s) period-piece -- of a South Africa in turmoil, a changing society in which old orders are shifting and new ones not yet established. The writing here is very strong, at an even simmer, but it still feels like too much is held back and held at bay, a hard surface on which an intricate, appealing design of cracks that have formed are on display but which doesn't break apart or open to reveal what's truly within.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 June 2014

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The Elusive Moth: Reviews: Ingrid Winterbach: Other books by Ingrid Winterbach under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       South African author Ingrid Winterbach was born in 1948.

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© 2014 the complete review

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