Book Review: The Ghost Moths by Harry Farthing

The People’s Liberation Army of China marches into a young Tibetan boy's village and begins to dismantle an ancient way of life through brutal oppression. The boy finds a mysterious relic, becoming a symbol of hope and a tool of survival for the villagers. It must be preserved at all costs.

The cover of the haunting Tibetan-based novel The Ghost Moths by Harry Farthing features a quote that really cuts directly to the undercurrent that runs beneath the entire narrative: ‘The past can only determine the future if it survives the present.’  Sounds like a fortune cookie at a progressive Asian restaurant, but it really nails what this novel is trying to say about culture, cultural identity, and tradition.

There are many uses and definitions for the term Ghost Moth within this novel and I believe it is important to understand what it symbolizes to genuinely enjoy the story.  The best description I found within the novel stated: ‘Like a ghost moth, you must fly far from this soil to escape the fungus that consumes us all.  Like a ghost moth, you must take the seed of our survival and hide it anew. Only alone and unseen like a ghost moth will you be able to do this.’  There are people recognized throughout this novel and over a period of decades who are referred to as the Ghost Moths and their purpose was accurately described by that brief passage.

The Ghost Moths is British author Harry Farthing’s second effort following his well-received debut novel, Summit, which also featured expert mountain-climber, Neil Quinn.  Quinn is a Mountain Guide working Mount Everest, but his skills will be put to a higher purpose before this new novel is through.  The Prologue here features a different climber, American Christopher Anderson, who in the year 1981 perished on the Mountain of Makula when he was struck in the head by a falling rock.  Just prior to his death, Anderson gauged a design into the mountain’s stone — the depiction of a Tibetan Ghost Moth.  Anderson also has a connection with one of the principal characters in the story that we learn about later.  Thankfully, Farthing has provided us with a Dramatis Personae list to keep track of the myriad number of characters referenced throughout this tale.

Chapter 1 jumps back to 1950 as we witness the fall of a small town named Amling that is pretty much wiped off the map by Mao Tse-Tung’s Red Chinese Army.  There is a legend from this long-dead village about a young boy named Pema Choje, an 8-year-old-boy, who attempted to flee the village with an artifact he found buried in the nearby mountain — a human skull.  The Reds want whatever he had dug up and eventually take it from Pema, destroying it in the process.  Pema can break away from the soldiers and head towards the great mountains in search of a knight named Temba Chering. He would never be seen again.

The action moves to the fall of 2014 and the rest of the action takes place within the three months of that season.  We are once again introduced to the term Ghost Moth and one of the latest definitions speaks about the Ghost Moth not being a spirit or a living Lama, but the group of people committed to protecting precious local relics and communities from disappearing.  The Dalai Lama himself is a character in the novel and there are some great scenes of him being interviewed by another lead character named Beth Waterman, a journalist for Rolling Stone Magazine.  We also find Quinn as he guides an expedition on Everest, and witness him sharing with his loyal Sherpa the circumstances in which he swears he saw someone at high altitude who looked like Christopher Anderson.

A former British official who is now retired and has been living in Tibet for forty years named Henrietta Richards plays a huge part in this story, as well as once being the love of Christopher Anderson.  She is handed two relics by a mysterious person and is told she must join with Quinn to finish the work begun decades earlier by Anderson.  There is also a brief riot where a shadowy unknown figure is either burned in effigy or self-ignite and the identity of this individual is just one of the many mysteries inside this story.

To go into any more detail would spoil the reading experience, and The Ghost Moths is a magical novel that feels like a work of fantasy and is made that much more amazing because everything described within is from our world and history.  The mysteries are not all answered, but that is okay because the satisfaction of this read is in spending time in this place that takes us from the ground floor of ancient, dissolved villages to literally the top of our world at the peak of Mount Everest.  Highly recommended for readers who want something more than just a mere historically based mystery/thriller.

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