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The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold



Alice Sebold: Start with a matricide, and go downhill from there


Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 03/11/2007

Carol Ann Duffy reviews The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

Readers of Alice Sebold's first novel, The Lovely Bones – a deserved bestseller and a hauntingly beautiful and original literary debut – will have been more than keen to get their hands on The Almost Moon, her second novel and, including the autobiographical Lucky, which dealt with a rape, her third book.

Sadly, this new publication is a disappointment on every level.

The opening chapter, in which the 49-year-old narrator, Helen, spontaneously murders her 88-year-old invalid mother, Claire, is so callously rendered that it punches a moral hole in the book into which the narrative tumbles.

Set, roughly, in a frantic 24-hour period, the book shows Helen involuntarily recalling key moments from her childhood, marriage, motherhood, divorce etc, in between murdering her mother; disposing of the corpse; summoning Jake, her ex-husband of 20 years, from the other side of America to help sort out the crime; having sex, on three separate occasions with Hamish, the young son of her best friend, Natalie; and confessing all to one of her daughters, Sarah.

Sebold tries to construct motivations for the murder, to set it up as fated: Helen has always felt unloved by Claire, was ashamed of her mother's traumatised behaviour on witnessing a neighbourhood child's fatal road accident, blames her for her father's suicide, and so on. But none of it feels believable.

The prose is often embarassing ("I bit my lip. I writhed. 'Fuck me,' I said, and hoped that no one's God was watching…").

The ear for dialogue is false – no one would have said "you are so not Catholic" 40 years ago. The main characters seem not to be properly imagined or are flattened by the relentless violence of the plot.

When Helen cooked, she tells us, "I would cut the white fat off a slippery chicken breast and spread the flesh out flat on the broiler pan, only to imagine holding my mother's heart."

Or we have this: "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. I did this both prone upstairs and gymnastically about the house. As I agreed to take out the trash, I cut off her head. As I weeded the yard, I plucked out her eyes, her tongue. While dusting the shelves, I multiplied and divided her body parts."

After the act of matricide on page 14 ("my mother was a passed-out bag of bones who reeked of shit") the reader is taken through two deeply unsettling chapters in which Helen cuts or rips off her dead mother's clothes, sponges her incontinent body clean, explores her body parts, including her mastectomy scar (the remaining breast, we are asked to believe, provokes "a surge of lust") and drags the corpse down to the basement before driving off to seduce Hamish.

Sebold's weak prose is, alas, unable to bear the weight of these grotesque events or to create a voice for daughter or mother which might bring compassion or understanding to the dark place their relationship has led to.

We are, as it were, invited to take everything as read; or, as the first line of the novel has it, to simply believe that "when all is said and done, killing my mother came easily". So, unfortunately, did this novel.


Shock is no substitute for plausibility


Last Updated: 12:01am BST 25/10/2007


Harriet Paterson reviews The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold


Brutal beginnings are becoming Alice Sebold's trademark. Her memoir, Lucky, opened with her own experience of violent rape as a student. Her first novel, The Lovely Bones, began with the rape and murder of a teenager.

As this third book kicks off with the narrator killing her ageing mother, Sebold is in danger of seeming a one-trick writer. Is shock her only way of inviting a reader in?

Heavy expectations hover round this new novel. The Lovely Bones sold 10 million copies, became a book-club standard and is being made into a film. It's the kind of phenomenon that makes publishers gamble wildly, and Picador reputedly paid a £1 million advance for The Almost Moon.

Middle-aged Helen visits her 88-year-old mother, who has dementia. Faced with washing her, she ends up killing her instead. It gets worse. In an almost unreadable sequence, Helen cuts off her mother's clothes, intimately examines her naked body, dumps her in the cellar and snips off her plait which she takes home with her. She then has sex with her best friend's son.

The book's cover claims this is raw and powerful; in fact it is sickening. To go this dark, you need truly compelling characters, and Helen does not deliver: she is selfish and weak with no discernible centre. Any empathy for her is severed along with her mother's hair.

When her ex-husband calls her 'fearlessly sane' – and we're meant to agree – a false note sounds. She has always dreamt of murdering her mother and chopping her into pieces.

The book posits a life ruined by a crazy mother as an explanation, but the narrative force that would give the murder psychological inevitability is lacking.

An exploration of the moral consequences of Helen's act is surely more urgent, and interesting, than a justification that turns perpetrator into victim. It's a grotesque example of 'me' culture, where a victim of a degenerative brain disease is hated and blamed as though she were responsible for her actions, while we are meant to care about the daughter who kills her.

Sebold cannot this time keep the reader close enough to prove her shock tactics are a valuable part of a coherent whole.

Her memoir had truth to give it ballast, The Lovely Bones had wit and a quirky creative artifice, with its post-mortem narrative voice. Here she just seems intent on compulsively smashing taboos for the sake of it: 'My mother was a passed out bag of bones who reeked of shit.' This is language with all pity and moral core stripped out, and it leaves the book raging and empty.









Mommy deadest




October 20, 2007



By Alice Sebold

Little, Brown, 291 pages, $28.99


It's been said that winning a great deal of money on a horse race at an early age is the worst thing that can happen to a man. One could probably say the same about first-time novelists who hit it big out of the gate, and then find themselves having to live up to their own reputations. It would be a mistake to pity an author as successful and talented as Alice Sebold, but one must wonder if the hype around her brilliant The Lovely Bones is the primary reason why her awkwardly titled follow-up, The Almost Moon, seems so deeply unsatisfying and uninspired, or if we would have felt this way about it anyway.

Middle-aged Helen Knightly is on the losing end of a parasitic mother-daughter relationship. Her occupation, modelling nude for art classes, is the most skillful of Sebold's metaphors: Through endless service to her mentally ill mother, and later to her daughters, Helen has been so thoroughly peeled away that it no longer even matters who sees her naked. Having a crazy mom will do that to you, is the message here.

What we would like to see is a new way of looking at this kind of relationship, just as Sebold earlier offered us a new way of looking at death. Instead, Helen simply kills her mother. Promising, perhaps, but then, for the first three chapters, we are treated to what feels like a thousand references to how bad mommy dearest smells after she soils herself. The scatology doesn't let up until the old lady has begun to harden in the freezer, some 30 pages in.

Helen then has post-murder sex with best friend Natalie's 30-year-old son, Hamish, whom Sebold deliberately portrays as if he were a teen. Point taken: Helen is regressing - or something. Twenty years after their divorce, her ex-husband appears to help Helen deal with the evidence, and manages to put his fingerprints all over everything.

Some time later, after a lot of flashbacks exposing just how nuts both Helen's parents were, the cops come around "to ask a few questions." Helen cruelly and clumsily throws suspicion on a former handyman. One of her daughters comes home from New York, and Helen confesses to her, as well. This makes the third person - and the second family member - to be implicated in a crime for which no one but Helen bears responsibility, effectively ensuring that I would, from that point forward, root for something bad to happen to her.

This is about the biggest mistake an author can make in developing a protagonist. Helen gives herself to Hamish again, this time in exchange for a car. She drives to her mother's house, but it is cordoned off as a crime scene, so instead she sneaks into the home of a recently deceased neighbour, intending to shoot herself. She writes a suicide note to her other daughter, but then notices that the police are outside. Instead of doing anything - anything - she decides to wait to see what happens.

And so this tale simply peters out. One cannot have a denouement without a knot to untie, after all. Here, Sebold simply draws a curtain over the last in a series of events that were never mysterious or engaging to begin with.

Sebold's writing is every bit as strong here as it was in her first novel, but style without story is like a playground empty of children, only less poignant. None of the themes in this book are in themselves uninteresting, but here they have the fragile heft of a vase that has been glued together from mismatched pieces. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of The Almost Moon is that there is really no true conflict; unpleasantries are exchanged, raw nerves are poked and misdeeds are committed, but none of this serves to heighten the tension or to lead us toward any kind of revelation. The Almost Moon is not really a story, but an explanation. As such, it carries as much emotional impact as a case history. We can imagine Helen's pain, but we can't feel it.

The best first novels contain the author's heart and soul; second novels are often nothing more than an exercise in craft. The Lovely Bones was a work of genius born of suffering. Sebold's first published work, a memoir called Lucky, tells the story of how she was raped and almost murdered; her enduring triumph was to transform this experience into her fantastical first novel, narrated by a girl who is both raped and murdered, but whose voice is undiminished by death.

The Almost Moon feels like anything but the next step in the emotional and spiritual progression of this complex authorial voice. This is not to say that Sebold didn't pour herself into it; devoted fans of her work will be reassured by her deft linguistic touch. However, in the end, this story is a series of inorganic events that, once begun, never pauses to consider whether we are along for the ride.


William Kowalski's most recent novel is The Good Neighbor.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Sunday, October 21, 2007

There's nothing lovely about novelist's latest

By Sharon Dilworth

The Almost Moon' by Alice Sebold

By Alice Sebold

Little, Brown ($24.99)


In Alice Sebold's breakout 2002 novel, "The Lovely Bones," the narrator is a 14-year-old girl who is raped and murdered.

Paradoxically this plot device works. The story goes on to detail both the victim's life in the hereafter and the way her survivors cope with the remainder of their lives.

As Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New York Review of Books, Sebold's extraordinary success might have been a reaction to the events of 9/11 when we desperately wanted to believe trauma, even death, could be experienced and processed without detrimental effects.

Of course, we know better now.

Trauma by its very nature forces both individual and social narratives to change but only with great difficulty and over a long period of time. We may be wiser or stronger but "better" might be asking too much.

Sebold's new book attempts to divorce itself from any linear or even sane narrative. In her exploration of extremities, she has left out the crucial components of empathy and cogency.

Insanity can only be meaningful as a literary device if it reflects our own sense of well-being.

The narrator of this novel is Helen Knightly, a 50-year old artists' model who has had a grim life. Her mother is agoraphobic and her father a suicide, leaving her to be her mother's primary caregiver.

But as we learn in the very first line of the novel, Helen doesn't like this job and by the end of the first chapter, she's rid herself of that responsibility by suffocating her mother.

This seems a little untoward, frankly.

The mother's behavior is probably more typical of an 80-year old woman than we'd like to believe. Her mind is unraveling, but her body is holding up well enough to make her ending seem interminable. In this way, she shares many characteristics of the book itself.

After dragging her mother's corpse into the basement and throwing it into the freezer, Helen phones her ex-husband to discuss the eventual disposal of the body.

He advises that she do nothing -- advice she doesn't heed. She bolts, leaving the evidence behind.

Alas, death is followed by sex.

When she sees her best friend's ne'er-do-well son, she demands that he lay on top of her, and then demands that he have sex with her (my words, not hers.) It has all the charm and logic of a YouTube clip filmed at a ward for the criminally insane.

Helen's ex-husband arrives from California to help, though his drinking impairs any level-headedness he might have brought to the situation. Instead they worry what to tell their adult age daughters.

Why not, "Grandma is dead"?

Later Helen is confronted by her best friend who's furious about the indiscretion with her son.

Helen has no explanation for her lasciviousness but, by this time, we're not expecting anything from her. There will be more senseless sex with said son and more disconnect with an adult daughter.

When she learns about the grandfather's suicide -- something they've kept hidden for years -- she asks to stop at the local package store to buy a six-pack of beer. It seems she enjoys a bit of brew with her family traumas.

The novel continually shifts back in time where we learn more about Helen's dreadful upbringing. She has accepted the role of a pinball ricocheting from one sad lonely event to the next without much analysis or contemplation. .

Yet, no one considers getting professional help for the mother -- and Helen never seems to seek it for herself......

The problem here is not in the subject matter: writers as disparate as Truman Capote and Fyodor Dostoyevsky have wrestled with demons and ultimately allowed us to see our own better natures.

This work is written in an emotional monotone, or less kindly, an amoral aphasia, which reflects neither horror nor humanity. It's the same queasy feeling that can happen when viewing pornography where the sheer baseness of the act is laid bare.

Sebold took an enormous shortcut here. She could have written a poignant exploration of what leads someone to commit euthanasia.

Instead she makes the narrator a zombie and the follow-up is a silly string of thoughtless decisions and hare-brain reactions to a tragic act.

First published on October 21, 2007 at 12:00 am


A writer of fiction and nonfiction, Sharon Dilworth is professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.








Sebold steps into darkness

FICTION | 'Lovely Bones' author explores mother-daughter relationship and hatred in latest book

October 21, 2007




By Alice Sebold

Little, Brown, 304 pages,


Even in the happiest families, mother-daughter tension is a complex and necessary fact of life. It's more than a matter of who's the fairest in the land or what happens when a chick gets too big for the nest.

As mothers age, there is the inevitable shift in power and responsibility. Your mother is your mother all your life. For the only daughter with a difficult only mother, the pressure is intense.

In The Almost Moon, a dark, masterful contrast to her essentially sunny crowd-pleaser, The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold confronts the matter head-on. She begins:

"When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily. ... She had been beautiful when my father met her and still capable of love when I became their late-in-life child, but by the time she gazed up at me that day, none of this mattered."

It's important to note here that nice as The Lovely Bones was, the engine that drove it is far from new. The idea has been around ever since somebody first noted that ghosts probably stick around until unfinished earthly business is resolved.

Matricide? Now that's a different story. Since everybody has a mother and we all have feelings about them, it's also an extremely risky one.

As withdrawn, unhappy divorcee Helen Knightly tells the story of her mother's murder, it becomes clear that neither of them is particularly lovable. All her life, Helen's mother has controlled her. Unlovable Helen drives her own husband away and, in a bitter footnote, tells her daughters to feel free to hate her.

"When I was a teenager," she reports in a fit of cold logic, "I thought every kid spent sweaty summer afternoons in their bedrooms, dreaming of cutting their mother up into little pieces and mailing them to parts unknown. ... As I agreed to take out the trash, I cut her head. As I weeded the yard, I plucked out her eyes, her tongue. ... I was willing to allow that other kids might stop short of this, that they might not, as I did, work out all the details, but I could not imagine that they did not explore this territory."

She describes her agoraphobic mother as a cold, spiteful piece of work. As drawn, she probably deserves to die. Helen reflects, "I was born in order to be her proxy in the world and to bring the world back home. ... That was our particular unspoken contract, how this child served this parent."

When Helen was a child this meant bringing home grade-school art to amuse her and, as it turns out, confronting angry neighbors. Her phobic mother let a child die in the street rather than leave the property to help. Now, it means making sure her mother is maintained in the house she refuses to leave for assisted living -- or, in fact, for anything else.

As a grudging new mother trying to feed her only child, the woman "must have hated it from the start." As an angry old one, she's lost what few marbles she had left. When she collapses, Helen tells us talking to her is "more useless than talking to a dog. A dog cocked her head. A dog gave you a soulful look."

One thing leads to another, and ...

As Helen's story begins, the old woman has just soiled herself. Helen wants to clean her up before she dials 911 because her mother would be mortified to have paramedics see her this way. Sebold makes clear how hard it is to handle your mother when she turns into a dead weight. Arms flop. Cleaning her up becomes impossible. She's too heavy to be carried, too stiff to be undressed.

In the end, it seems better to smother the old lady on her back porch than have outsiders see her like this. After all, Helen owes it to her -- in many ways.

The unseen partner in this crime is Helen's dead father, whose story unfolds in the hours after the murder. In the first hours, while she obsesses over what to do with the body, she revisits the past, discovering by degrees that although Helen refused to recognize it, her quiet, depressive father was quite angry.

In this phase of Helen's story, everything that could go wrong does go wrong in a grimly comic way that recalls The Loved One, a delightfully macabre novel by the satirist Evelyn Waugh.

The balance between fear and laughter in art as in life is delicate at best. For the most part, Sebold keeps it brilliantly, making everything Helen does -- including having sex with her best friend's son -- seem logical in the driven, obsessive way of crazy people who think everything they do is logical.

This is by no means the grisly but love-based treatment Sebold gave the old story she retold in The Lovely Bones. This novel is built on something that looks a lot like hate. The material is risky and exciting and refreshingly new. Whether readers sympathize with poor Helen or not, all but the squeamish will fall in and follow her to the end.

Kit Reed's most recent novel, The Baby Merchant, is now available in trade paperback.




Friday, October 19, 2007


"The Almost Moon" | Sebold's 2nd novel takes on matricide

By Bharti Kirchner


"The Almost Moon"

by Alice Sebold

Little, Brown, 291 pp., $24.99


Thus far, Alice Sebold has not been known as a "shock writer." (That designation, at least regionally, belongs to Chuck Palahniuk.) For sure, Sebold tackled a difficult subject in her debut novel, "The Lovely Bones," which was narrated from heaven by a teenage girl raped and murdered by her neighbor. The hauntingly beautiful book won the American Booksellers Association Book of the Year Award in 2003, as well as many readers' hearts.

With her eagerly awaited second novel, "The Almost Moon," Sebold seems to be attempting a more daring act. The first sentence alone is a shocker:

"When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily."

The narrator is Helen Knightly, and it is with resentment that she takes care of her 88-year-old mother, Clair, who suffers from dementia. One day, Clair loses control over her bodily functions, causing Helen, who has to remove the soiled clothes from her mother's body and bathe her, to finally snap.

"My mother's core was rotten like the brackish water at the bottom of a weeks-old vase of flowers. She had been beautiful when my father met her and still capable of love when I became their late-in-life child, but by the time she gazed up at me that day, none of this mattered."

At that point, Helen, who is a mother herself, smothers Clair with towels. She takes great care to hide the corpse and imagines telling Clair's elderly neighbors: "This is where it all ends up." Then she calls her ex-husband Jake long distance, confesses her criminal act and pleads for help.

The next several hours move rapidly. Still in a daze, Helen commits several other errors of judgment, prompting this revelation: "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?"

Through all this, Helen contemplates her strained relationship with her mother, a father who committed suicide, the isolation she endured growing up and the self-esteem she never acquired. " 'Ugly is as ugly does,' my mother would say."

That day, as Helen shows up for work, the police arrive to question her, and her world begins to come apart. So why did she do it? The question convulses in Helen's mind, as well as in her discussions with Jake. Much to her credit, Sebold avoids easy answers.

Because of the huge success of "The Lovely Bones," a comparison between Sebold's two offerings is inevitable. In "The Lovely Bones," the more readable of the two books, the narrative moves more smoothly. In "The Almost Moon," Sebold often moves back and forth in time, creating a choppy effect.

Sebold's skill in developing characters, even the minor ones, is less on display in "The Almost Moon" — some of the side players in the latter are less compelling, and a few plot events appear to be contrived. The shock effect of the early part of the book ultimately wears off. Sebold, however, replaces it with an urgent question in the reader's mind: What will happen next?

"The Almost Moon" still has intensity and a page-turning quality. Readers of this book are likely to be discussing it for a long time.

Bharti Kirchner's latest novel is "Pastries: A Novel of Desserts and Discoveries."





Alice Sebold's latest novel is a grim, strange tale of matricide

By Beth Kephart

November 10, 2007


The Almost Moon
By Alice Sebold
Little, Brown, 291 pages, $24.99

Phoenixville, Pa., was once a classic American mill town -- home to the Iron Works and to immigrant workers, to the nails and rails that helped expand the nation's railways, to the Phoenix Column, which was exported all around the world for use in elevated subway systems, bridges, trusses, even the Eiffel Tower. As the manufacturing economy eroded, so, sadly, did Phoenixville, but time never does stand still. Phoenixville today is being reborn -- its Iron Works transformed by a flawless restoration, its main thoroughfare dotted with award-winning restaurants, its Fridays in summer made memorable by the musicians who fill street corners and parking lots with their fare.

It is a shame, therefore, that Alice Sebold has chosen to locate "The Almost Moon," her grim new novel, in a place that has begun to glimmer again. The book's brightest line is perhaps its first: "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." It's pretty much all downhill after that "easily," as we come to know our narrator, Helen Knightly, a divorced woman, mother and nude model on the verge of 50 who has finally had enough of care-taking and smothers her ailing mother, breaking the tip of her nose in the process.

Does Helen love her mother? Does she hate her? Does the mother deserve her death, or is she rescued by it? Does Helen possess the family gene for possible craziness? Sebold seeks to offer an explanation -- or at least to capture the tumble of memories and thoughts that go through her protagonist's mind. Flashbacks flesh out the ensuing 24 hours, as Helen tries to hide her crime and pulls unwitting innocents into her own selfish, sordid business.

It is perhaps the pacing of this book, not to mention the grab bag of potential explanations or defenses, that make it difficult to locate even a shred of empathy for, or true interest in, Helen. Memories rise up abruptly, then disappear, then are returned to, canceled out, contradicted, or refashioned -- creating a jagged, unkempt feeling about the prose. Tone, too, erodes the reader's sympathy for Helen, who surely faced a challenge in caring for a mother who was on the edge of dementia. It's problematical to imagine, for example, that just moments after the unpremeditated murder of a mother, the following sort of overembellished sing-song would be going through a daughter's mind:

"I suddenly knew what I would do. I would clean my mother as I had intended to, but this time without the possibility of protest, without her eye clicking open like an ancient baby doll's, the starburst blue glass an instant indictment. I did not care anymore about the watery mess it might make on the floor. The critic was dead. Carpe diem!"

Once the cleaning of the dead mother has commenced in earnest, the tone grows even more odd, more frankly offensive -- something between giddy and perverse:

"In order to remove her underpants, I ripped them open, and her body jiggled just a bit. I thought of the bronze statues that artists cast to resemble people doing everyday things. A bronze golfer to meet you on the green. A bronze couple to share a bench with you in a city park. Two bronze children playing leapfrog in a field. It had become a cottage industry. Middle-Aged Woman Ripping Underpants off Dead Mother. It seemed perfect to me. One could commission it for a schoolyard, where students ran from the building after working all morning with numbers and words. They could climb on the two of us at recess or drown flies in the dew that pooled in my mother's eyes.

"And there it was, the hole that had given birth to me."

I found it impossible to keep my footing in this swampy, distasteful prose, to gain any meaningful understanding of Helen, any sense of her as a real person, any desire to keep on reading -- though, for the sake of the review, I did.

And things just got more perplexing as the story unfolded -- as Helen calls her inexplicably compassionate ex-husband, seeks his advice, then basely ignores it, dumping her mother in the basement near a meat refrigerator (we get the blow by blow), chopping off the silver braid as a keepsake (because in addition to all the hatred, there's a whole lot of love, we're told), then driving off to seek out her best friend's 30-year-old son, with whom she decides at once she must have sex. Somewhere along the way, Helen sees her ex, manages to upset him and goes off to work to pose nude for a classroom of art students, were she encounters the mother of the young man she's just slept with. It's a tad thorny to explain the rationale for any of this. Here's Helen, doing her best as regards Hamish, the let's-have-sex-because-I just-killed-my-mother-but-I'm-pretending-I-didn't victim:

"In the scattered moments after dropping Hamish off, I didn't know whether to congratulate myself or break out the ice packs. It had been two decades plus since I'd had sex in a car with a man who hadn't yet reached an age when he coughed or spit or groaned when he woke up. We had agreed, vaguely, to see each other again, and his eyes had focused on me with what I can only call a Vaseline-on-the-lens acuity. He saw sex and experience. Through my own clouded perceptions, I saw, when I looked his way, the last vestiges of grace."

Grace? Grace? Oh, if I yearned for anything from "The Almost Moon" it was for at least one moment of grace. But the deeper the story goes, the stranger it gets -- not strange as in surreal, not strange as in shocking (the shocks here are gratuitous), but strange as in the many disparate plot pieces that never add up to a whole.

Caring for an elderly parent can be a trying business; those who do it are pushed to extremes. The days aren't always good, the mood isn't always loving, there can be terrible burdens involved, horrific inclinations. All of this is true, all of this demands a story. Sadly for all those who embraced Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," "The Almost Moon" doesn't deliver on this author's promise.

Beth Kephart is the author of seven books, including, most recently, "Undercover," her first novel for young adults. Her blog is at beth-kephart.blogspot.com.




OCTOBER 12, 2008

Helen Dunmore


The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

Picador, £16.99; 291pp


ALICE SEBOLD'S MEMOIR Lucky and her novel The Lovely Bones both explored the impact of violence upon its victim. Her new novel reveals a reversal of viewpoint from the first sentence: “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”

Sebold's narrator, Helen Knightley, has been enmeshed with her mother all her life. She hungers for her mother's love while being devoured by rage and bitterness at the devastating effect of Clair Knightley's mental illness on her own childhood. Quite apart from her agoraphobia and Alzheimer's, Clair is no easy parent. She is beautiful but thwarted, doted upon by her husband and often cruelly dismissive of her daughter despite her dependence on this only child.

Helen becomes incapable of moving far beyond her mother's destructive but addictive presence. Their dance of love and hatred continues behind closed doors even now that mother is 88 and daughter almost 50.

The reader's understanding of Clair is, however, filtered through an eloquently unreliable narrator. Helen seizes power by telling her story in her own way, forcing it through her own angry consciousness and colouring it with her sometimes startling assumptions. In most families there is an unspoken struggle to control the past by memory-telling and story-keeping. Each member has a partial and passionately held view, but with luck the range prevents any one becoming dominant.

Helen Knightley, however, has no one to challenge her version of the past. Her father is dead, and she has no sibling. She stops her mother's mouth with soft towels, smothering her and breaking her nose in the process, then degrades her corpse. She washes her mother's body, giving her a pedicure with the rough side of the pan-scrubber. She exposes her genitals and washes them in scalding water, then drags the corpse down to the basement. At this point Helen realises that she cannot put her mother's body in the meat freezer without chopping it up, so abandons the idea. Instead, she chops off the long braided hair that her father loved, and puts it in a freezer bag.

This unrelenting physical detail recalls Sebold's account of her own rape and near-murder in Lucky, but the effect is very different. Alice, in the cruellest and most vulnerable circumstances, fights to outwit her attacker by staying alive. Alice's humanity, her desperate individuality, make the narrative soar as it depicts the assault without flinching.

Clair Knightley is permitted no such resonance by her narrator-daughter. The murder celebrates her daughter's need to see her mother as a thing rather than as a woman with whom her relationship is entirely — desperately — unresolved. There are hints of Sylvia Plath: Helen wears a formal pink wool dress when she loses her virginity to her artist husband, in an echo of the pink wool suit that Plath wore to marry Ted Hughes. The hatred within a consuming mother-daughter intimacy is also very Plathian.

Chapter by chapter, Sebold peels away the layers of her narrator's misery and self-deception, and creates an extended and sometimes blackly comic critique of a popular literary genre. Helen Knightley holds an almost hilariously complete hand of “misery memoir” cards, and her confidence that these will trump her mother's murder is one of the most sinister aspects of the characterisation.

Her father has killed himself; her mother's illness has made them social pariahs; Helen's marriage has failed. The Knightley family is unlucky in brilliantly extravagant fashion. Her father's childhood home is scheduled for drowning to create a new dam; her mother cannot hold a great-grandson without dropping him on the floor; a gang of vengeful neighbours advances on the teenage Helen, and one assaults her as payback for her mother's failure to help a boy struck by a car outside their house.

At the core of this novel Sebold asks a profoundly interesting question about Helen's failure to recognise the authenticity and inviolability of others. The murder is the most obvious example of this blindness, but there are many others. Her relationships with her children seem brittle and needy, her friendships break down when they conflict with what she wants. She is a sexual predator not because she is desirous but because she is numb to the effect that she has on others. When interviewed by the police, she tries to pin blame for the murder on a young man named Manny Zavros who ran errands for her mother.

Sebold writes brilliantly about the dangers of a narcissistic and victimised identity; about murderous self-pity and its overweening sense of entitlement. Helen Knightley is a character who makes the spine creep, and The Almost Moon is a mature, salutary and timely novel.




October 14, 2008


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 ex-husband 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 a rather unfortunate incident with a neighbour's cat, and Helen considers putting Mom in the freezer before leaving her on the basement floor and heading 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 Bildungsroman it's as though she's decamped into another novel altogether and the revelations about her dysfunctional childhood (Mom was mad, in case you haven't guessed) come thick and fast. Even the specifics of her mother's madness 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 very 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. It’s a fictional version of all those creepy memoirs of childhood abuse which dominate the bestseller lists, especially in the US, and ideal reading for fans of Dave Pelzer.




October 18, 2008


The Almost Moon


Jane Housham


Helen Knightly's act of matricide is the bleak engine of this novel and although the murder is revealed in the opening sentence, Sebold maintains the suspense until the last darkly ambiguous page. The killing is motivated by both mercy and vengeance; Sebold's narrative not only evokes the self-absorbed cruelty of Helen's mother, but also brilliantly demonstrates how the fathomless need for love makes a child accept even the most distorted parody of mothering with something akin to gratitude. She expertly manages the reader's responses to Helen as both child and adult, merging sympathy with distaste before backing into the blackest humour. Helen's actions invite us to judge her, to imagine what we would do in her place, to decide if she's a heroine or hopelessly damaged. One's engagement with the novel is sustained and visceral. In a framework of disturbingly banal realism (the awkwardness of bodies, the frightening continuity of life), Sebold's eloquent language searches out the tender spots deep in our psyche and presses hard.




Sunday, October 12, 2008


Imogen Carter


Desperate to escape the 'crying, barking and biting' of her mentally ill octogenarian mother, Helen Knightly fulfils a lifelong dream: she murders her. Alice Sebold's follow-up to The Lovely Bones depicts a lonely, suburban divorcee as she wrestles with five decades of painful memories and the 24-hour aftermath of her brutal act. Although well-paced and emotionally charged, The Almost Moon suffers from a heroine who is hard to like - and sometimes believe in - despite the layers of misery Sebold inflicts upon her (a father's suicide, a childhood attack, a failed marriage and, of course, her 'crazy bitch' mother). Other works, notably Dave Eggers's memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, have explored the ill parent/child-carer relationship with greater poignancy and originality, but this is none the less an engaging page-turner.