A novel about a 14-year-old girl plucked from her strict Mennonite colony in the Bolivian jungle and plunked into a new life in downtown Toronto could easily overplay its hand and make an easy meal of the shock and wonder in the girl’s eyes. But with Once in a Town Called Moth, Trilby Kent gives us a tale of uncommon subtlety and nuance. There is wonder in the hero’s eyes, but like any teen looking for acceptance, Ana’s instincts tell her it’s best to keep this to herself.
Ana finds, however, that she can let down her guard with two neighbourhood teens, Suvi and Mischa, who help her navigate the perils of North American teen-dom. When Ana asks what irony is, or mistakes a pair of earbuds for a hearing aid, they don’t get annoyed, they get protective.
Kent writes with refreshing emotional sophistication. Rather than spell things out, Ana’s impressions of city life – the confinement, clutter, and thrill – are brilliantly conveyed via her own rural reference points: “The sky was the color of sour milk, streaked with airplane trails, crosshatched with telephone wires and streetcar lines. It was as if someone had stretched an enormous sheet of chicken wire overhead.”
Though the reasons for her and her father’s abrupt, undercover departure from Colony Felicidad aren’t totally clear, Ana does know her father is looking for her mother, who left Bolivia almost a decade earlier and hasn’t been heard from since. Impatient for answers, Ana embarks upon her own investigation into her mother’s whereabouts and, thanks to Suvi’s Internet skills, soon gets them, though the mother-daughter reunion isn’t what Ana expects.
Things turning out differently than expected is a pattern that repeats throughout the novel. At school, Ana is flattered to be favoured by the “cool” teacher, Mr. Peterson, until his treatment of Mischa, who is gay, makes her realize that Mr. Peterson is just a screwed-up adult whose adolescent attitude is anything but cool. The unfurling of the Bolivia-set backstory and the dark event that led to Ana’s current circumstances similarly suggests life wasn’t as idyllic as it initially seemed.
As literary as it is smart, Kent’s novel reflects life beautifully in its rigorous denial of pat, easy answers.