On Alice Sebold in this site
The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Books of The Times
Instability Passes From Mother to Daughter With Sudden, Deadly Consequences
By Michiko Kakutani
The Almost Moon
By Alice Sebold
291 pages. $24.99. Little, Brown & Company.
It's hard to write persuasive, complex novels or movies or television episodes about mentally ill killers. Too often the explanation for their crimes is simply that they're crazy: they didn't know what they were doing, they couldn't control themselves, they couldn't grasp a sane alternative to their violent actions or they simply went off their meds. Rarely do their plights shed light on the day-to-day choices made by ordinary people; rarely do their stories open out into something larger or more resonant. Instead we are all too often given merely voyeuristic glimpses of troubled souls running amok and leaving lots of bloody splatter and pain in their wakes.
This is the problem with Alice Sebold's new novel, "The Almost Moon." The book starts with the narrator, Helen, killing her elderly mother, Mrs. Knightly — she suffocates the old woman with some bath towels — and while the remainder of the novel presumably aims to explain why Helen committed this horrific act, it instead leaves the reader thinking that Helen and her mother are both insane. And not insane in any particularly interesting or novel way: just plain old generic nuts.
The resulting novel is annoying, unconvincing and deeply perplexing. Although it shares some themes with Sebold's acclaimed best seller, "The Lovely Bones" — both are concerned with families and the connection (or lack of connection) characters feel toward the real world — this volume demonstrates none of the psychological acuity or emotional chiaroscuro of that earlier book.
The heroine of "Bones" — a 14-year-old rape and murder victim looking back on her life and family from a vantage point in heaven — proved to be a perceptive and highly sympathetic narrator; Helen, in contrast, comes off as a talkative monster, whom the reader never comes to understand. We never understand why she daydreamed, since she was a girl, of cutting up her mother "into little pieces and mailing them to parts unknown." We never understand why she snips off her dead mother's hair as a kind of trophy and puts it in her purse. And we never understand why she has sex with her best friend's son right after killing her mother.
Helen's mother is clearly a disturbed woman, capable of provoking hurt feelings, anger and contempt, but her behavior hardly seems the sort that would produce murderous rage. Helen tells us that her mother was relentlessly negative (when Helen revealed that she was pregnant, her mother said, "There are no awards given out") and hypercritical about Helen's appearance (when a teenage Helen peered into the refrigerator, her mother talked of the "near matronly" thighs she will develop).
Helen tells us that her mother suffered from terrible agoraphobia and refused to leave the house. And she tells us that the entire neighborhood blamed her agoraphobic mother for failing to run to the rescue of a boy who was hit by a car in front of their house. In Helen's opinion her mother also helped drive her troubled father (who himself spent a stint in a mental facility) to suicide.
Helen suggests that she has committed herself to the care of her mother as a kind of tribute to her father: "My father had exited stage right, and in I had walked, seeing it not only as my duty but as perhaps the greatest gift I might give him posthumously, to take forever the burden of my mother."
Though it becomes clear that Mrs. Knightly, a former lingerie model, exerted some sort of powerful sexual hold over her husband, it's harder to understand why Helen decides to martyr herself to her mother, why she allows her mother to embitter her, sabotage her marriage and jeopardize the happiness of her own children.
Because Sebold never makes Helen's emotional damage or twisted psychology remotely tangible, it's hard to understand why Helen never did the sensible thing: why she never sent her mother (or father, for that matter) to see a psychiatrist, or continued to see one herself; why she moved back home to be near to the woman she says she hates; why she refused to hire a nurse or home aide to help care for her mother.
In terms of sheer suspense, Sebold does a decent enough job of getting the reader to wonder what will happen to Helen after she murders her mother. Will she succeed in enlisting her ex-husband's help in covering up the crime? Will the police's attention turn to Manny, a boy who occasionally repaired things for her mother? Will Helen follow in the footsteps of her father, and kill herself before she is arrested?
Though such questions are enough to keep us turning pages, they aren't enough to make us care one scintilla about Helen. Throughout the novel Sebold has Helen say things like she was "a shadow girl," trying to be what she thought her mother and her husband wanted her to be. She says she was "raised by a solitary woman to be a solitary child." And she says she thinks mental illness has "the unique ability to metastasize across the generations."
Unfortunately, neither these musings nor Helen's stilted descriptions of her unhappy childhood make the crime she has committed any more comprehensible. And neither turn Helen from a generic, high-concept madwoman into a recognizable human being.
The Caretaker's Dilemma
The author of "The Lovely Bones" explores a matricide and the loveless years that led to it.
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, October 14, 2007; BW04
THE ALMOST MOON
By Alice Sebold
Little, Brown. 291 pp. $24.99
Alice Sebold makes us listen to women we don't want to listen to: a rape victim, a murdered teenager and, now, a daughter who's smothered her elderly mother to death. She attends to the kinds of people who, historically, have been doubted, ignored or shamed into silence. She can describe shocking acts of violence and long periods of recovery in prose that is at once deeply sympathetic and surprisingly maudlin-free. The Lovely Bones was phenomenally popular in 2002, enough to relaunch her previously published memoir, Lucky, onto the paperback bestseller list. That vast fan base essentially guarantees instant success for her new novel, The Almost Moon.
No one ever wanders into a book by Sebold wondering what it's about. None of that dilatory scene setting for her. It's as though she imagines her books posted on a crowded homepage competing for attention: Lucky begins: "In the tunnel where I was raped. . . . " The Lovely Bones risks delaying that punch for a single sentence: "My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered. . . ." And The Almost Moon opens with this whopper: "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." Yes, there's something suspiciously salacious about this technique, but in Sebold's defense I think it reflects her refusal to play these horrors for cheap suspense. She wants to get immediately beyond the violence and focus on what really interests her: how survivors deal with trauma.
Unfortunately, that approach works far less successfully in The Almost Moon, in which her attention has shifted, for the first time, from victim to perpetrator. The novel takes place in a single day and tells the story of Helen Knightly, a middle-aged woman who cares for her mother, a cancer survivor who's severely agoraphobic. "For more than twenty years, with greater or lesser diligence," she tells us, "I had been attending to her, rushing over when she called saying her heart would burst, or taking her on increasing rounds of doctors' visits."
In the opening scene, a distinctly unpleasant one, Helen goes over to her mother's house and finds the old woman has lost control of her mind and bowels. "She had not, as I may have momentarily hoped, died," Helen says. "I knew I was going to have to call the ambulance. I knew, as I had for some time, that my mother was heading out of this life, but I did not want her arriving at the hospital caked in [excrement]."
As her mother passes in and out of consciousness, Helen tries to move her to the bathroom, but she can't carry the 88-year-old woman upstairs. Using some towels as a sleigh, she drags her into the kitchen, then out to the porch, but it's futile, disgusting and depressing. "There is no excuse to give," Helen confesses. "I smashed these downy towels into my mother's face. Once begun, I did not stop."
This subject is tragically relevant to millions of people -- mostly women -- who find themselves waving goodbye to their adult children just in time to take in their declining parents. And continuing advances in the treatment of disease will surely swell the number of families forced to care for relatives who have outlived any semblance of an enjoyable life. Helen is acting out a paranoid nightmare for elderly parents and a forbidden fantasy for their burdened children.
But The Almost Moon lacks the sensitivity and depth to carry off its dramatic opening or explore the complex issues it raises. As a narrator, Helen is never sufficiently sympathetic to plead her own case nor insightful enough to explain it. The murder and Helen's bumbling efforts to dispose of the body strike weirdly discordant tones: "Arsenic and Old Lace" one minute, a geriatric snuff film the next. The intimacy of Helen's efforts to clean her dead mother sounds almost sacramental, but the scene is interrupted with sardonic little jokes and asides. All of this might make some creepy psychological sense in the hands of Joyce Carol Oates or Donna Tartt, but here we're left with a narrator who can't convey or even imply the magnitude of what she's doing.
Sebold has shown herself capable of these tonal inconsistencies before. The dreadful love scene toward the end of The Lovely Bones was a cringe-inducing blooper that ruined the novel for some readers. But the problems in The Almost Moon are far more pervasive. Poised over her mother in the basement, Helen says, "I had never thought of how one cut up a body, only of the freedom to be had postsevering. The grisly reality of the sawing and the butchering had never preoccupied me. It was the instant flash, the twitched nose of 'Bewitched,' the magic of going from having my mother to not having her that held me in its thrall." That cute reference to Elizabeth Montgomery reminds me of the scene in Native Son when Bigger Thomas stuffs Mary's body in the furnace and thinks about "Gilligan's Island." Hijinks ensue!
All this might have worked if we got some sense that Helen were slipping into psychosis or at least felt a little panic. Instead, she moves like a woman worried about overestimating her deductions on last year's taxes. The meandering story that develops over the next 24 hours is a mishmash of ludicrous plans for escape, laughably implausible trysts with her best friend's son, a "blond-god doofus," and predictably unhappy memories of life with Mommie Dearest. Several sections of The Almost Moon demonstrate that Sebold can still write beautiful, haunting scenes, but there are enough jarring missteps here to make anyone wonder why she sabotages herself.
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.
Review: Sebold's 'Almost Moon' picks at the mother-daughter scab
Sunday, October 14, 2007
The Almost Moon
By Alice Sebold
LITTLE, BROWN; 291 PAGES; $24.99
How about a novel all about the proverbial horror of eventually, inevitably, turning into your mother? What's more, it's a mother who heckled her daughter from adolescence through adulthood about never being good enough, pretty enough or thin enough. A well-worn theme, to be sure, but Alice Sebold pulls it off it in her biting yet dreamlike second novel, "The Almost Moon." The twist that the book begins with also helps shake up an old premise: The tormented middle-aged daughter fulfills her lifelong fantasy of killing her mother.
On the day of the novel's events, 49-year-old Helen Knightly's mother, Clair, is 88 and has been suffering from dementia for decades, which has placed a monumental burden on Helen and her father (who had his own unspecified psychological issues). Among other things, Helen is bitter and tired. That evening Clair soils herself. As Helen is about to clean her up to take her to hospice care, something clicks in her head and she suffocates her mother "in the same way," she later muses, "you would turn the light off in an empty room."
Immediately afterward, Helen thinks it's truly all over, that the air around her is "for the first time ... not full of hatchets and blame or unworthiness" and that at last her "mother ended at the border of her own flesh." Of course, such a thought is foolish. The remainder of the novel covers the next 24 hours, interspersed with many flashbacks, over which Helen finally realizes that her mother's reach stretches far beyond, and is far more intangible than, her mere corporeal form.
Anguish, perseverance and sly dark humor permeate this exploration of a complex love-hate, mother-daughter relationship and how particular relationship tics are perpetuated from generation to generation. The humor brings both relief and realism to Helen's predicament; the first couple of chapters - with Helen's mother first merely incapacitated and then dead - contain some of the novel's funniest lines. While her mother is still alive, after having wrapped her up cocoonlike in two blankets, Helen gazes at her and thinks "Super Giant Mother Burrito." Cleaning up her mother's body after she dies, Helen thinks of "the bronze statues that artists cast to resemble people doing everyday things. ... A bronze couple to share a bench with you in a city park. Two bronze children playing leapfrog in a field. Middle-Aged Woman Ripping Underpants Off Dead Mother."
The book does have its flaws, but more on the scale of blips than full narrative derailments. Right after the murder, Helen drives to the house of her best friend, Natalie, and, not finding her home, propositions Natalie's 30-year-old son, Hamish - because, of course, when you've just had a brush with death, having sex with someone almost half your age is just what the doctor ordered. There's also the fact that some of Helen's many philosophical ponderings seem to have been surprisingly slow in coming, as when she considers, "When was it that you realized the thread woven through your DNA carried the relationship deformities of your blood relatives as much as it did their diabetes or bone density?" Many people have come to this realization before the age of 49.
Beyond the novel's charged mother-daughter relationship, we have complicated ties between husband and wife, and parent and child, and between neighbors. There are a couple ways of looking at the "mess" of the Knightly family, et al. On the one hand, it is an eccentric (insane, criminal) family surrounded by eccentric neighbors in a depressing, run-down former mill town in Pennsylvania. The Knightlys seem to have more than their share of problems, and Helen comments that "I believed, as my mother always had, that there was them and there was us. 'Them' were the happy, normal people, and 'us' were totally f-." On the other, you begin to realize that perhaps Helen is not necessarily "totally f-," but maybe just honest, and that if she and her family aren't exactly "normal," maybe they're at least not uncommon.
Further, you realize that rather than having slipped as an observer down a rabbit hole into a world of crazies, perhaps Sebold has just turned things upside down so that the rabbit hole leads right back to the reality we're already living in. Along with its buoying dark wit, it is this eerily familiar blurred line between sane and insane that makes "The Almost Moon" simultaneously uncomfortable and absorbing.
Kim Hedges is a San Francisco writer.
October 21, 2007
By LEE SIEGEL
THE ALMOST MOON
By Alice Sebold.
291 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $24.99.
“When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.” That’s the first sentence of Alice Sebold’s new novel, which follows her best-selling “Lovely Bones,” the story of the rape and murder of a girl who tells her tale from beyond the grave. “The Lovely Bones” was Sebold’s second book. Her first was an account of her own rape, a memoir wryly titled “Lucky.”
“The Almost Moon” matches those early books in acts of violence. Not only does the novel’s narrator — a professional art-class model named Helen Knightly, the divorced mother of two grown children — murder her mother in graphic fashion, but she also describes her father’s bloody suicide, relates the story of the hit-and-run killing of a young boy and eerily alludes to the time her mother dropped Helen’s infant grandson on his head.
You have to be in awe of that first sentence, though. Dostoyevsky had to write hundreds of pages before getting to the act of patricide in “The Brothers Karamazov.” It took Oedipus two whole plays to realize he had killed his father and to “work his way through it,” as we would say, so he could find terrible redemption at Colonus. But in “The Almost Moon,” right there at the get-go, at the beginning of the long journey that will take her from the motivations for committing her unspeakable crime to some sense of “closure,” Helen is, you know, cool with murdering her mother.
She isn’t being arch, in case you were wondering. “The Almost Moon” doesn’t waste our time with dark irony winding itself around complex psychology, à la Humbert Humbert, who described his own mother’s death with a parenthetical indifference verging on happy relief in Nabokov’s tediously multilayered novel. Sebold may not be as dreadfully earnest as Sophocles and Dostoyevsky, but she is sincere.
Very much so. After suffocating her mother, which also involves breaking her nose, Helen tells us she “thought of the uncared-for bodies that lay strewn in the streets and fields of Rwanda or Afghanistan. I thought of the thousands of sons and daughters who would like to be in the position I was in. To have known exactly when their mothers died, and then to be alone with their bodies before the world rushed in.” Though she has just killed her mother, Helen is a generous person. She never forgets that other people are suffering and dying too.
In “The Almost Moon,” Sebold is out to lasso some big ideas about the relationship between parents and children, especially mothers and daughters. Murdering her mother — who, we learn, was mentally ill and had colon and breast cancer — inspires Helen to ruminate on her parents; her failures as a wife and friend; her reasons for having sex, right after the murder, with her best friend’s son; and her life as an art-school model. (“Having lost all shyness by having spent my career taking off my clothes in public,” she thinks, relaxing with a good, hot shower just hours after asphyxiating her mother, “I enjoyed how demure the steam made me seem.”)
The book’s title refers to something her father once told Helen when she was a girl. “The moon is whole all the time, but we can’t always see it. What we see is an almost moon or a not-quite moon. ... We plan our lives based on its rhythms and tides.” Later, Helen connects this to a big idea about her relationship with her mother: “The idea that my mother was eternal like the moon. ... Dead or alive, a mother or the lack of a mother shaped one’s whole life.”
If you welcome the unreal disjunction between killing your mother and reflecting afterward how lucky you are compared with the children of the dead, “uncared for” mothers in Rwanda and Afghanistan, then this book will make you clap your hands with joy. If you find the idea that mothers shape their children’s “whole” lives original rather than simultaneously banal and puerilely overstated, then Barnes & Noble, here you come! This novel is so morally, emotionally and intellectually incoherent that it’s bound to become a best seller.
Sebold is mining a popular and lucrative vein in contemporary fiction: peg your book to some heartrending tragedy or act of violence and you’re almost sure to be greeted with moral seriousness, soft reviews and brisk sales. Whether it’s because the American novel is becoming Hollywoodized, or because the disjunctive tone and disassociated content of the news have numbed us to disjunctive and disassociated fiction, or because we’re losing the capacity to imagine other people’s pain, writing callously and sunnily and profitably about tragedy is now an established American genre.
Sebold sashays blithely from ludicrous descriptions of sex (“I bit my lip. I writhed ... and hoped that no one’s God was watching”) to ridiculous shifts in tone (“Her voice hit the still house with its usual force factor”) to “we’re sorry but we cannot offer you any M.F.A. funding for next year”-type sentences (“I felt the tears in my eyes and knew they would fall”). There’s no plot in this novel. It’s all free disassociation.
“The Almost Moon” is really like one very long MySpace page. Sebold isn’t imagining people and events; she’s just making stuff up as she goes along. After Helen murders her mother, she asks her ex-husband, a sexy artist, to come all the way from Southern California to suburban Philadelphia to help her. (“He had aged in a good way. The way wiry men who seem unconcerned with their appearance but who have deep habitual hygiene and exercise habits age.”) She tells him what happened, and they have the following exchange: “ ‘What did you think putting her in the freezer would achieve?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I said. I could feel the shelf I kept the laundry supplies on gouging into my back. ‘I don’t know.’ ”
You find yourself struggling simultaneously with the juvenile contrivance of Mom in the freezer, the icy cynicism of such a conceit and the utter unreality of the conversation. It’s like having the Marx brothers chase Margaret Dumont around your cerebellum.
There’s no light at the end of Sebold’s bouncy tunnel vision. After the freezer moment with her former hubby, Jake, the two share a comic moment over Helen’s memory of her psychotherapist and why he had been so bad: “ ‘His shelves were full of I. B. Singer, and the statues on his tables were that lost-wax Holocaust style. Lots of dismembered trunks of tortured people wrapped in barbed wire and mounted on poles. I would be talking about my mother, only to look up and see a legless, armless torso reaching out for me.’ Jake laughed.”
Even the schlockiest popular novels of yore — “By Love Possessed,” “Marjorie Morningstar,” “The Chosen” — had accurate, if mundane, social and psychological perceptions. Danielle Steel has that. You and I have that! It’s beyond comprehension that Sebold can publish a novel pretending to reflect reality that’s so severed from reality.
The source of her vacuum-packed perceptions is perhaps an impenetrable moral narcissism — not for nothing does Helen the art-school model compare herself to Virginia Woolf and Maria Tsvetaeva, two legendary literary suicides. So it will come as no surprise that Helen’s murder of her mother turns out to be more mercy killing than outright homicide. But Helen also extinguishes her mother’s life because she can’t bear the burden of caring for her any longer: “I was determined now to explain what I could to my children and to carry the shame of my mistakes.” For heaven’s sake.
Well, don’t worry, Helen. To paraphrase the old joke, “Oedipus, shmedipus, as long as they love their mother.” The real shame is that “Reading Alice Sebold” isn’t listed in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” After you’ve finished this insult to the lumber industry, your health care provider won’t cover your search for a cure.
A woman's hatred toward her mother pushes her over the edge.
By Susan Salter Reynolds
October 14, 2007
The Almost Moon
Little, Brown: 292 pp., $24.99
There are two ways to read Alice Sebold's new novel, "The Almost Moon." On the one hand, it is a toxic soup of contagious mental illness, cruelty, deception and regret: Sad middle-aged woman murders the mother she has always hated. On the other hand, it's a comedy of errors: Sad middle-aged woman murders the mother she has always hated. I tried, like a polar bear clinging to an ice floe, to read it from the latter perspective, but no go. Blame a depressive turn of mind (after all, this reading business is not one-sided; there is no dark theater, no willing suspension of disbelief), but "The Almost Moon" caused sweaty palms and, in places, made me want to look at anything but the page.
It is indisputably a good thing when writing is so vivid it causes physical reactions. But does a writer, or any artist for that matter, have the obligation to uplift us and make us feel better about our humanity? "I mean, if you have that mind, why not make something beautiful?" Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary on July 13, 1931. Woolf spent a lot of time on the dark side. Many of her characters are disturbed, trapped, such as Septimus Smith in "Mrs. Dalloway," who commits suicide. But she felt the need to create something beautiful -- not just lyrical but containing some seed of hope for the human race.
And yet, "they can't all be pretty ones, girls," as guitarist Pat Metheny told an audience before playing his cacophonous piece "Off Ramp" in 1981. Metheny might as well have been talking about Sebold, who does not write "pretty ones." Her first book, "Lucky," was a memoir of being sexually assaulted at 18, while her breakthrough novel, "The Lovely Bones," is narrated from heaven by a 14-year-old girl who has been raped and killed.
"The Almost Moon" is not a pretty one, either. Rather, it's a book about extremes. Helen Knightly hates her agoraphobic, manipulative, beautiful mother with a constant dutiful-daughter hatred that comes full circle, after passing through self-loathing, to love. It's a sick love, yes, a crazy love, but love is complicated. One day -- she is 49 and her mother is 88 -- Helen finds herself cleaning up after yet another of her mother's nasty bowel movements, listening to the wicked, splenetic spew that comes from her mother's reptilian mouth, and she simply suffocates the older woman with a towel.
What to do with the body? First, Helen chops off the long braid -- she loves her mother's hair. She fondles her mother's one remaining breast, which brings up feelings of lust. Then she throws the body down the basement stairs and puts it in the meat freezer. She calls her ex-husband Jake, with whom she has three grown children. He gets on a plane in Santa Barbara and comes to Pennsylvania to help her. In the meantime, she goes to see her best friend, who is not home, and ends up sleeping with the woman's 30-year-old son, Hamish, whom she has known since he was born.
These actions are mind-numbingly arbitrary, although that may be Sebold's point: Does anyone really know why they do anything? And it may be that her refusal to give us the details we need to better understand Helen's actions is part of her method.
But too often, Helen and Jake and the other characters seem to perform in a vacuum. Helen is an artist's model. She spends much of her professional life nude, and she likes it. She is a grandmother. Her ex-husband, who understands her hatred of her mother and even what led to the murder, considers her one of the sanest people he knows. Still, even as Helen worries about the consequences of her actions (getting caught, making her best friend angry), she entirely overlooks the moral implications. "Finally, after all these years, my mother's life was snuffed out, and I had been the one to do it," she thinks proudly. "Within a few minutes, as she struggled for breath, my lifelong dream had come true."
Interestingly, it is this that allows us to imagine there might be something slapstick to the novel; without ethics, afloat in the labyrinth of consequences, even the worst things in life can be funny, after all. At the same time, if there is no moral prism in a story, we tend to create one; the human mind looks for context, and ethical judgments help to make that clear.
Eventually, we learn something about Helen's motivations. Indeed, after its initial scenes, "The Almost Moon" becomes a litany of reasons, reasons so good you could almost believe that the killing was justified. Helen hated her mother, Sebold tells us, because she was a crazy freak who isolated her family and eventually caused Helen's father to commit suicide. In the end, though, understanding why people do things does not substitute for context, despite what some therapists would like us to believe.
The phrase "almost moon" comes from an explanation Helen's father once gave her for her mother's different-ness. She is, he explains, not quite whole. "The moon is whole all the time," he says, "but we can't always see it. What we see is an almost moon or a not-quite moon. The rest is hiding just out of view, but there's only one moon, so we follow it in the sky. We plan our lives based on its rhythms and tides." This lovely paragraph suggests the extent to which anger and resentment drive our lives, as well as how much we are bound to patterns of behavior inherited or developed in reaction to our parents.
Sebold has expressed her distaste for the idea that literature provides any kind of therapy for the writer. In "The Lovely Bones," the girl's killer escapes. There is forgiveness, what some people call closure -- which provoked a lot of discussion among readers and critics. How, after all, can you write a novel of redemption in which the main character is a dead and desecrated girl?
That's a good question, but when it comes to Sebold, it may be the wrong one. Rather, her willingness to pry into the darker aspects of human consciousness is what's important. Still, the two-dimensionality of her characters makes them easy to crumple up and throw away.
Helen is, in many ways, a cartoon Raskolnikov caught in the glare of the author's headlights. Yet where Dostoevsky bore down into Raskolnikov in "Crime and Punishment," Sebold is only a toreador, flashing a red cape in front of some dangerous and fascinating questions. How can we break free of our mothers and fathers? How can we be whole? How can we love our children and our parents with a love that is not binding? Some kind of answer -- it doesn't have to be pretty -- would have made "The Almost Moon" more than just a stylish book. *
Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.
October 14, 2007
Reviewed by Joan Smith
THE ALMOST MOON by Alice Sebold
Picador £16.99 pp291
In many ways, The Almost Moon belongs to a familiar species of American novel. The narrator is a divorced woman with grown-up daughters, a bit of a thing for her exhusband and a difficult relationship with her mother. She hasn’t made much of her life but it isn’t a total disaster; she lives in a nice house in Pennsylvania and works as a life model at the local college. She likes one daughter more than the other, which is normal, and she doesn’t worry too much about what’s happening to her middle-aged body.
Ah yes, bodies: we don’t get far into the novel before Helen has a really big problem, not with her own but her mother’s. That’s body as in corpse, and like most first-time matricides – I’m guessing here, not having any relevant experience myself – Helen doesn’t have much idea what to do with it. The late Mrs Knightly’s sudden departure from this earth follows an unpleasant episode in which she soils herself, to use a euphemism, and Helen spends absolutely ages getting her corpse into a presentable state.
There’s an unfortunate incident with a neighbour’s cat, then it’s into the freezer with Mom and Helen is off to visit her best friend. Discovering that Natalie is out on a date – without telling her! – there’s not much for Helen to do but have sex with Natalie’s son Hamish in the back of a car. She’s known Hamish since he was a baby so it’s kind of all right, and anyway it passes the time until Helen’s former husband Jake, an ice sculptor with permanently cold hands, arrives from the other side of the country to discuss the increasingly pressing question of what to do with his former mother-in-law.
Alice Sebold’s earlier novel The Lovely Bones was a huge bestseller narrated by a teenage girl who had been raped and murdered. From a weird supernatural realm in the sky, more like summer camp without bossy adults than heaven, she watched her family’s search for her body and recorded in soap-opera detail the next few years of their lives. The tone of this truly appalling novel was upbeat in a way I associate with people who have an unshakeable belief in therapy and positive thinking, a sort of “you may be dead but hey, things could be worse” view of the world. Hence, I suspect, its phenomenal success.
From a dead narrator to a homicidal one isn’t a huge leap, especially if you have Sebold’s limited emotional range as a novelist. When Helen kills her mother (and describing it as a mercy killing would be pushing it), the event triggers not so much remorse as a bout of self-obsessed introspection. During these passages of bog-standard Bildungs-roman it’s as though she’s decamped into another novel, and you have to give thanks for her foresight in putting Mom (who was mad, in case you haven’t guessed) in the freezer. Even the specifics of her mother’s insanity are unoriginal, expressed in terms of a femininity – a feminine mystique, one might say – too fragile to engage with the real world.
Like the earlier novel, this is a dark subject handled in a bewilderingly inappropriate way. “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily” is the first line; the book has no moral centre that I could discern but it does have buckets of melodrama. True, some mysteries remain. Why is it called The Almost Moon? Would you buy a novel called Mom’s in the Freezer? I rest my case.
The Sydney Morning Herald
The Almost Moon
Dorothy Johnston, reviewer
September 24, 2007
Author - Alice Sebold
Genre - Fiction
Publishe - Picador
Pages - 29
RRP - $32.95
When is a murder not a murder? One answer could be: when a woman kills her mother out of love and hate.
Helen Knightly kills her mother by suffocating her with a towel, breaking her nose in the process, but she baulks at being called a murderer. The Almost Moon could be described as an attempt to unravel a daughter's knot of contradictory emotions and to juggle the explosive ball that combines sanity and madness in a single individual.
As the pace of change has quickened in Western countries, many taboos have disappeared, but murder, with rare exceptions, has not submitted to changing moral fashions. Clair Knightley is 88 and suffering from dementia yet her death is clearly not a mercy killing. It may have been impulsive but, once Clair is dead, Helen drags her into a basement, cuts off her long braid and puts the hair in her bag, after she's allowed a cat to play with the hair ribbon. She drives to her best friend's place and has sex with her son. She steps outside social and moral constraints and abandons the qualities that have kept her going up until that point, nurturing qualities that mothers are supposed to possess, and daughters too. What gives this novel its exciting undertow is the pull, ever-present in suburban America, towards violence and madness. Yet Helen is an ordinary woman and her mother was madder than she'll ever be.
How everyday actions become wicked is an interesting question, more interesting than a depiction of impenetrable evil or insanity. If Helen's actions look crazy on the surface, they are nevertheless made transparent to the reader and Sebold takes great pains to make sure we understand her. If fictional murderers could be spread out across a spectrum, she is at the opposite end to the pedophile and child-killer portrayed in The Lovely Bones, Sebold's first novel, which sold more than 2.5 million copies and made her famous.
Helen has spent her adolescence trapped at home with an agoraphobic. The last time Clair ventured further than the front gate was to accompany her daughter, aged 11, to buy menstrual pads. For most of her life, Helen has been dominated by a spiteful, impossibly demanding beauty. She cannot turn her back on her mother, though she has tried, at one point moving half way across the country. Clair's insanity is, for all its humdrum manifestations, ultimately impenetrable. "It must be obvious to you that your mother is mentally ill," a neighbour, Clair's only friend, tells Helen. But the definition doesn't help anybody much.
Set against the female characters is Helen's father, who faithfully cares for his family, though he has a secret life as well; and a weakness that, in the end, proves fatal. Helen is afraid - it's greater than the fear of being charged with murder - that her mother's insanity, not simply as a biological fact but an interweaving of tendency and circumstance, has passed down to her and that the only escape is suicide. She's also terrified that her daughter, Sarah, or perhaps her grandson will inherit the family curse. "When was it that you realised the thread woven through your DNA carried the relationship deformities of your blood relatives as much as it did their diabetes or bone density?"
It's an affliction described as being "almost whole". "So much in life is about almosts, not quites," Helen's father tells her.
"Like the moon," she replies.
Helen's about-face at the end, from desperation to escape one way or another to a decision to give herself up, seems rather too easily arrived at. And I wondered why Clair had to be so beautiful, a Greta Garbo of the suburbs, as though the subjection of her husband and daughter would have been inexplicable without this. Minor quibbles aside, The Almost Moon is a fascinating account of home as the ultimate nightmarish trap
Alice Sebold finds terrible gravity in The Almost Moon
Mother's dementia brings daughter to the murderous edge
When Helen was a child, her tender but preoccupied father once confided in her about the woman central to both their lives. "I like to think that your mother is almost whole. So much in life is about almosts, not quites. The moon is whole all the time, but we can't always see it. What we see is an almost moon. The rest is hiding just out of view, but there's only one moon, so we follow it in the sky. We plan our lives based on its rhythms and tides."
It was a terrible gravity that governed the cycles and storms of the Knightly household. And now Helen, a 49-year-old divorced mother of two grown daughters, remains tethered to her mother still. As the primary caregiver of Clair, who is in her late 80s and consumed by senility, Helen visits her childhood home regularly and endures a familiar, unrelenting viciousness. At one time her mother was beautiful, and the proof of her brief career as a lingerie model still exists in the photographs displayed throughout the house. Outwardly attractive, perhaps, but seldom kind, and Helen muses that "[d]ementia, as it descends, has a way of revealing the core of the person affected by it. My mother's core was rotten like the brackish water at the bottom of a weeks-old vase of flowers."
So one day, when she's had enough, Helen kills her mother.
From the opening line of The Almost Moon, which casually acknowledges this murder, we recognize Alice Sebold's hand: her sensuous yet impeccably direct language, her world where the poignant and the gruesome intertwine. Sebold has a track record of writing so movingly about chilling subjects that she has become something of a cultural bard. Her articulate, disquieting stories of horror — the horror of the unthinkable, of the right next door — resonate with a staggeringly large readership.
Her 1999 memoir Lucky recounts her own rape while a freshman in college and its aftermath. (She was deemed "lucky" by some because the man who brutalized her had killed and dismembered another of his victims.) The Lovely Bones, Sebold's heartbreaking novel about a 14-year-old girl named Susie who is raped and murdered, was published in 2002 and spent 78 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. It is fascinating to observe how a particular book can galvanize such extraordinary response, in this case striking a chord in spite of — or in part because of — its ghastly content. In fact — and this is purely anecdotal yet still remarkable in our era of decreased book-buying — almost every woman I know either read or tried to read The Lovely Bones. For a while wherever I went I would see someone sitting engrossed in the book bound in its deceptively innocent baby-blue cover.
A different murder
So as much as Sebold's new novel, which goes on sale Tuesday, deserves to be experienced in its own right, recognition of the phenomenon that came before it will inevitably influence people who pick up The Almost Moon. As does The Lovely Bones, the book opens with a meticulously detailed killing. Of course, compared to the horrendous events involving the first novel's young heroine, the crime has an entirely different tenor. Clair's death is not the premeditated goal of a sociopath but rather the result of a step-by-step series of ambivalent and fraught responses. The narrative covers the next day and a half that follow the murder, an intensely compact and suspenseful story woven through with memories that shed light on the present.
Clair's behavior is truly awful but at times subtly so, which makes the identification of her abuse all the trickier, especially for a little girl who repeatedly hopes for a hint of love. A cruel narcissism, agoraphobia and neediness leave no room for empathy, and certainly not for parenting. And now that Helen is an adult, things are no better. When she arrives one day with a new, cropped haircut, her mother says, "Don't tell me you have cancer too. Everyone has cancer these days." She blithely drops and injures her infant great-grandson and shows neither concern nor remorse. Tellingly, that careless act was enough for Emily — Helen's oldest daughter and the baby's mother — to cut herself off from her grandmother. But Helen is unable to do the same and, driven by guilt, obligation and a particular unrequited love known to those with heartless parents, she continues to subject herself to her mother's hatefulness.
A psychic option?
Whether you go sympathetically on Helen's wild ride will depend on how you respond to the notion that killing an intolerable mother is a psychic option. In The Lovely Bones we had an endearing narrative guide: We experienced unfathomable violence through the eyes of Susie as she looked down on earth from her place in the afterlife. In fact, Sebold's brilliant descriptions of heaven and her nuanced observations of a grieving family made for some of the loveliest writing I have ever come across. Yet the gory events made the book impossible for some readers to complete.
Sebold writes just as beautifully here, with the same knack for stating truths page after page. So it all comes down to whether you want to spend time with Helen and her internal set of morbid thoughts and images. She realizes after she murders her mother that "my lifelong dream had come true" and that "it had been an innocent urge I carried inside me like a spleen, optional but always present, in some way part of the whole." Helen has this latter moment of insight while seducing her best friend's son, someone who used to play with Emily when they were toddlers — breaking yet another taboo.
Men, too, have roles
Though this story is above all one of mothers and daughters, three men also figure strongly. Helen's father is ultimately unable to bear the burden of his wife but prevails for many years despite his private wounds. "My father's grace had developed in proportion to my mother's violence," Helen tells us, and the destructive dance between the two adults left her neglected much of the time.
We also learn a bit about Jake, Helen's ex-husband, who "had pulled me in the direction of faith in the world, and I had pulled him toward a place where daggers awaited behind every smiling face." A literate, wise neighbor named Mr. Forrest is Clair's only friend — she acts as something of a tragic muse to him — and Sebold renders him as a charitable ally to both Helen and her mother.
Rules for women
One can see the questions raised, the debates unreeling: Is it so wrong to kill such a mother? Is self-flagellation better, more sanctioned somehow, than punishment of the person who has caused a lifetime of pain? Is it so wrong to sleep with a young man who once had play dates with your little girl? Who sets these rules for women?
Helen is an artist's model, a profession that takes Clair's choice of work to a more extreme level. She bares herself completely, vulnerable and defiant, standing fully exposed but with an impersonal anonymity. The self-destructive 36 hours that make up this book are both damning and revelatory — we come to know Helen's most naked, traumatized self.
This novel is a fiercely written, risky work, and it is, by its very nature, unpleasant. There is the simple question: Why not just put your mom in a nursing home? And then there is The Almost Moon, when the irrational pull is too great, when the illness of a family claims another soul.
Lisa Jennifer Selzman lives in Pittsburgh. Her writing has appeared in numerous magazines and the New York Times Book Review.
Friday, Aug. 24, 2007
The Almost Moon
By By Alice Sebold; 304 pages, Oct. 16
It took Alice Sebold all of two sentences to kill off the heroine of her first novel, The Lovely Bones. That book began as follows: "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." Her second novel, The Almost Moon (Little, Brown; 304 pages), arrives Oct. 16, and this time Sebold draws blood in half the time. The first line reads: "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily."
Sebold is fascinated by physical cruelty. She knows about it firsthand: her first book was a memoir, Lucky, that describes her assault and rape by a stranger during her freshman year of college. But unlike Lucky and The Lovely Bones, The Almost Moon is not the story of a victim. Helen Knightly, 49, is caring for her elderly, demented mother, with whom she has always had an angry, fraught relationship. One day Helen snaps and smothers her. It's like a mystery in reverse: you know exactly who got done, by whom and how. "I wish I could say that as my mother lay on the side porch," Helen tells us, "and the wind began to pick up more and more so that the crows clinging to the tops of the trees took flight, that she made it easy on me. That she pointedly listed all the sins she had committed during her long life." Needless to say, she does not.
In fact, nobody makes things easy on Helen, not her mother, her children or her ex-spouse. Certainly Sebold doesn't. The Almost Moon spins out over just 24 hours, each of them taut as piano wire, though Sebold also ranges over the full course of Helen's memories to show what brought her to this unthinkable act. Sebold's unblinking authorial gaze is her hallmark: where lesser writers would turn away from things too horrible to see or feel or admit, her scrutiny never wavers.
— LEV GROSSMAN
Sun, Oct. 14, 2007
The Almost Moon. Alice Sebold. Little, Brown. 304 pages. $24.99
Not surprisingly, Alice Sebold opens her new novel with a line guaranteed to provoke a jolt: ''When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.'' It's a provocative sentence, reminiscent of ''My name was Salmon, like the fish,'' which kicked off her mesmerizing The Lovely Bones.
Unlike The Lovely Bones, though, The Almost Moon disappoints, not because of its bleak subject matter but because the narrative can't maintain its momentum. Like The Lovely Bones, which was narrated by a murdered teenage girl observing her world from the afterlife, The Almost Moon also explores family bonds, expectations and fractures. But its narrator, Helen Knightly, is so detached from life it's impossible to make any sort of connection with her or even to comprehend her disastrous decisions.
Helen has smothered her mother on the front porch of the house in which she grew up, not because she can no longer bear the older woman's harrowing descent into dementia -- a development that might have sparked some needed empathy -- but because killing her had always been a lifelong dream.
''When I was a teenager, I thought every kid spent sweaty summer afternoons in their bedrooms, daydreaming of cutting their mother up into little pieces and mailing them to parts unknown.'' Growing up with an agoraphobic mother and a suicidal father, a resentful Helen was forced to cope with more than her share of mental illness, and she has had enough.
Now, years later, divorced with two adult daughters and working as a model for college art classes -- baring her body but never her soul -- Helen has smothered her mother with a pile of towels. What follows is 24 hours of dithering: of calling her ex-husband for help; of sleeping with her best friend's son; of trying to decide whether she should confess, brazen it out or flee.
Given that its plot concerns a murder, you might think The Almost Moon would be driven by suspense. You would think the 24-hour time frame would propel the story to action or at least to emotional frenzy. But there's no sense of tension, no inexorable tightening of fear or regret. It's hard to get worked up about what happens to Helen, just as it's difficult to believe a woman who murders her mother could be this bland.
The best parts of the novel occur in flashback, such as the passage in which Helen recalls a bittersweet visit to her father's old home and her discovery of some of his odd, unnerving secrets. She also remembers a frightening incident when some male neighbors, angry over her mother's behavior, demand a confrontation, and Helen is left to diffuse them. More butcher imagery follows: ``Mr. Warner knew the cuts and quarter cuts on every major meat. He could name them and tell you their qualities. Tender, stringy, chewy, or moist.''
But macabre hints and a few other memorable scenes don't bring us closer to understanding Helen's psyche, and the book's resolution is grossly anticlimatic. Despite the promise deep in The Lovely Bones, The Almost Moon turns out to be almost bad, dull at the least, and that's a shame.
Connie Ogle is The Miami Herald's book editor.
In the haunting Almost Moon, Sebold parses a family's tortured history and its tragic end
By Gail Caldwell | October 14, 2007
The Almost Moon
By Alice Sebold
Little, Brown, 291 pp., $24.99
And you thought the premise of "The Lovely Bones" was tough to take. In Alice Sebold's first novel, a runaway bestseller in 2002, she made her fetching, 14-year-old narrator omniscient in every sense: The girl had been murdered in a corn field by a serial killer, and for the duration of the story got to spy on her family, postmortem, from a pretty good seat in heaven. But the novel's dark center was also what made it bearable. If Sebold had begun with the unthinkable - the killing of a child - she also created a supple and merciful perspective that outlived the cruelty of its central premise.
As with "The Lovely Bones," "The Almost Moon" delivers its most dramatic news straight out of the gate. "When all is said and done," 49-year-old Helen Knightly tells us in her opening sentence, "killing my mother came easily." So we have a matricidal narrator this time around, a corpse who's almost as much trouble dead as she was alive, and no little-girl promises of a sweetly imagined afterlife - just the torment and regret and stunningly rendered memories of a lifetime of trouble.
Advance notices of "The Almost Moon" have tended to carry a caveat, suggesting that Sebold's topic is too unrelentingly grim to promise the sort of reception that "The Lovely Bones" warranted. For my money it's a better novel. It's brilliantly paced, it's brutally honest, and the Gordian knot at its core - an abusive mother and her traumatically attached daughter - is depicted with such generous intelligence that the fineness of the novel more than surpasses its own horror show of circumstance. Sebold has managed to give us a sympathetic protagonist who smothers her mother in the opening pages, and yet the decades that led up to this black moment are delivered without a shred of sentimentality or melodramatic overkill. It's a tightrope walk of character building: Helen is funny, tough, and utterly trustworthy as a narrator; her mother is equal parts demonic and pathetic - she's Livia Soprano, ruining her child's life as she rules over her court of gloom. And worse.
The novel opens on an October morning in the suburbs of Philadelphia, when Helen has stopped by her mother's suffocating house to provide some obligatory care. Clair Knightly is 88, has survived colon cancer, and suffers from a dementia made worse by a lifetime of mental illness. "It's a hard day, Helen," either parent would tell their only child throughout her youth, their code phrase for Clair having slipped the ties of sanity: She might be hiding in the linen closet, or brandishing some new weapon, be it actual or emotional. A lingerie model who had left her career to marry Daniel Knightly, who worked at the water-treatment plant, Clair spent Helen's childhood mooning over old photos of herself, punishing everyone around her for the hideous sorrows of her life; she was agoraphobic, violent, and - maybe worst of all - utterly unpredictable. Until his death (the details of which emerge gradually), the father tried to care for his child and endure his wife, occasionally escaping into his own parallel universe.
But Helen's ending of her mother's life is not so simple as an enough-already mercy killing. If all the rages and needs of a lifetime have led her to this moment, she also has memories of just enough beauty and hope - cruel illusions - to keep her in the ring forever.
When it wasn't a hard day, Helen would sit at her mother's knee with Clair's old fashion portfolio, begging for stories about her glamorous past; she improved on her mother's vanity by becoming a life model for the art department at a local college. Helen married an artist who fell in love with her form; they had two daughters of their own before splitting up years ago. Now Jake is the one Helen calls for help. He's always been a cheerful, easygoing fellow; now he shows up at the crime scene wearing a T-shirt that reads "Life is good." "If there was a reason for our divorce," Helen reflects, "it was this in a nutshell. On this point, we had always disagreed."
Which should suggest that, along with its terrifying truths and vortex of ambivalence, "The Almost Moon" can be mordantly funny. A symmetry of madness and coping has defined Helen's life: She grew up in a pretend world with a mother who put empty, prettily wrapped gift boxes under the Christmas tree; until the end, though, she has buffed her mother's calluses and painted her toenails the coral color she likes. But if Helen has finally triumphed over her mother's tyranny, she suffers no illusion that this is the end of the story. The daughter has gone from prisoner to executioner.
The title of "The Almost Moon" comes from an exchange Helen had with her father when she was just old enough to glimpse her mother's madness. "Mom's different, right?" she asks, with the heartbreaking understatement of a child. His answer is both fitting and kind. "I like to think that your mother is almost whole," he tells her. "So much in life is about almosts, not quites." "Like the moon," she answers, simply and fearlessly, because, madness or no, she knows that a mother has an unassailable position in the sky. The riveting question throughout "The Almost Moon" is what Helen, having systematically smothered her mother, will do now. But the real dramatic tension of this haunting, searing novel belongs to the past: By the time Helen picks up that pillow for her felonious liberation, most of the crimes have long since been committed.
Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe.
Intense love, furious hate
Sebold explores horror of mother-daughter dynamic
By Ashley Simpson Shires, Special to The Rocky
October 12, 2007
When Alice Sebold published her first novel, The Lovely Bones, in 2002, it instantly shot to the top of The New York Times best-seller list. The dark, heart-wrenching novel is narrated by a teen, Susie Salmon, who watches from heaven as her family deals with the aftermath of her rape and murder.
The Lovely Bones received rave reviews, and Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) recognized its incredible cinematic potential. Jackson is currently writing and directing the film version of The Lovely Bones, to be released in 2008.
It has been five years since Sebold made her fiction debut, and fans have been eagerly awaiting both the film and Sebold's next novel. It's difficult for any author to handle the pressure of a first-run success, but Sebold has taken it in stride. Her second novel, The Almost Moon, is another home run, a story with a plot wholly different from The Lovely Bones but just as beautifully constructed, fearless and fast- paced.
"When all is said and done," the novel begins, "killing my mother came easily. Dementia, as it descends, has a way of revealing the core of the person affected by it. My mother's core was rotten like the brackish water at the bottom of a weeks-old vase of flowers."
The narrator of The Almost Moon, Helen Knightly, is 49 years old, and her mother, Clair, is 88. For 20 years, since Helen's father's died, Helen has had the sole responsibility for her mother's care. She has carted her mother to doctor's appointments, bathed her and appeased her, all while brushing off her mother's vicious comments and mean-spirited attacks.
All this tension culminates, though, in the first chapter of the novel, when Helen smashes a handful of towels onto her mother's face.
"Once begun, I did not stop. She struggled, her blue-veined hands, with the rings she feared would be stolen if she ever took them off, grabbed at my arms. First her diamonds and then her rubies briefly flickered in the light. I pushed down harder. The towels shifted, and I saw her eyes. I held the towels for a long time, staring right at her, until I felt the tip of her nose snap and saw the muscles of her body go suddenly slack and knew that she had died."
The novel hurtles from this startling opening scene through the next 24 hours in Helen's life. Sebold keeps up a desperate pace while strategically inserting a series of vivid flashbacks that illustrate Helen's unconventional childhood and her intense love/hate relationship with her mother. They also portray her mother's long struggle with mental illness.
The severity of Clair's mental problems becomes clear when Helen is in high school. Clair is home alone when she hears the sound of a neighborhood child being hit by a car. As the tires squeal away, Clair runs out of the house in a blackout and is suddenly struck frozen at the curb. Her agoraphobia prevents her from stepping into the street and going to the child. He lies on the pavement, calling, "Ma'am, ma'am," over and over again. A delivery truck driver who witnesses the scene finally runs into Clair's house and calls an ambulance.
After work, a group of neighbors gathers on the lawn across from Helen's house. "They were angrier, it seemed, at my mother than at the faceless, nameless stranger who had mown Billy Murdoch down. It took every person who joined the group two or three times hearing the story before they understood how what my mother had done was possible. And it wasn't exactly that they understood. It was more like, by rote, it began to sink in. Clair Knightly, whose husband they all knew, had stood in her yard and watched a boy they all knew die."
The backlash from the event is horrifying. In a moment of drunken solidarity, a group of neighborhood men rises up against Clair, trying to force the family from the neighborhood. A teenage Helen comes into the yard to talk them down. This is one of the situations that Sebold excels in portraying: the powerlessness of women in the face of unadulterated male aggression.
But while the plot of The Lovely Bones pivots on that balance of power, The Almost Moon focuses more on female relationships, especially between mother and daughter. Helen herself has two daughters, and in the hours after she kills her mother, she wonders if she will confess to them. For a while, she manages to elude both her daughters and the police. Her erratic, grief-stricken behavior gives no clue to how things will ultimately turn out. In part, it is this wild unpredictability that makes the book impossible to put down.
The Almost Moon is a breathless read, a dark literary thriller that delves into the psychology of mother-daughter relationships and the fallout of mental illness. It is neither a sequel to The Lovely Bones nor a replica; instead, it ventures into startling new territory.
A debt of gratitude
While promoting The Almost Moon during BookExpo America, Sebold gave a shout out to booksellers for their help selling The Lovely Bones: "My husband dared me to come here and thank you openly for paying off our student loans," she said with an impish grin.
Ashley Simpson Shires' fiction has appeared in the American Literary Review, the Brooklyn Review and other publications. She lives in Boulder.
The Almost Moon
By Holly Silva
The narrator of "The Almost Moon," Helen Knightly, is 49 and a divorced mother of grown daughters who works as a nude artist's model at a small Pennsylvania college. She is the primary caretaker of her infirm but sharp-mouthed mother, Clair. Their conflicted yet close relationship is the story's core and is distressing to read in its grimness.
The author, Alice Sebold, was violently attacked as a young woman, which is an integral element of her earlier works. "Lucky" is a memoir of her rape; and the best-selling "The Lovely Bones" is a fictional account of a teenage girl who does not survive the same crime.
Sebold's new novel changes topics, yet it demonstrates how personal history shaped her capacity as a writer.
"The Almost Moon" is powered by a constant low-level hum of brutality. Sebold avoids the overt cruelty of familial neglect and abuse. Instead, she writes wincing scenes of cutting a hair braid or wearing someone else's slip. It's a world where menace is found in the recognizably everyday.
The book also contains a surprising
physicality. The banal ways in which Clair's and Helen's bodies do and do not
serve them are as critical to the book as their decisions and feelings.
To different degrees, mother and daughter are judgmental of others and cynical about nearly everything. This lack of generosity is fuel for their respective unhappiness but is at times redemptive. Further, both women suffer gaping vulnerabilities that deepen, soothe and explain their rough outlooks.
Like Humbert Humbert in Nabokov's classic "Lolita" or the popular HBO sociopath Tony Soprano, the familiar, likable Knightly women may make readers find themselves rooting for mental illness and savagery. Helen's dark sensibility is ruinous but often funny, intelligent and true.
When Sebold has readers in hand like this — complacent with Helen's workaday struggles and entertained by her straight-talking skepticism — the author twists just a bit further, a bit harder, to reveal helplessly somber moments of the human heart.
That readers will not know they are entering into such shadows until they are already there is the book's genius and its peril.
Holly Silva is a St. Louis writer.