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Book Review - The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

Mommy Dearest

The Almost Moon
by
Alice Sebold

Published by Little, Brown and Company

Review by W. R. Greer


The Almost Moon, Alice Sebold's second novel, begins with an attention-grabbing opening sentence:

When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.
The narrator of the novel is Helen Knightly, a 49-year-old woman in a decaying industrial city in Pennsylvania. She has spent most of her life caring for her mother in one way or another. When she was a child, Helen's mother, Clair, was bitter, mean, and insulting. By the time Helen was a teenager, her mother began to suffer from agoraphobia and rarely left the house. By her 88th year, Clair suffered from the aftereffects of breast cancer and from dementia. Attending to her mother was a thankless job that usually involved her mother's bitter tongue lashing out at Helen or denigrating the neighbors who had come over to help her. In a fit of anger and despair, Helen kills her mother. It was not something she planned to do, but when the moment came, she found it surprisingly easy to do. Living with the consequences of that action, though, threaten to completely undo Helen.

The Almost Moon follows Helen over the next 24 hours as she struggles to come to grips with the death of her mother and her own capability to murder. She calls her ex-husband for help and goes looking for her best friend, Natalie. All her actions are made impulsively and often make the situation worse. Helen knows that once her mother's body is found, it will be obvious she didn't die from natural causes. Yet there's no way she can undo her actions or cover her tracks. As Helen meanders through her life in the next 24 hours, she also meanders through memories of her past - her life with her mother over different periods of their life, her father who shared the imprisonment in the stressful and unhappy house with Helen's mother, her ex-husband Jake, and her daughters, Emily and Sarah.

There isn't a lot of active plot during the 24 hours of The Almost Moon, yet Alice Sebold has delivered a suspenseful novel of emotional drama. Her debut novel, The Lovely Bones, dealt with a similar theme, though in a completely different fashion. The Lovely Bones centered around the murder of a 14-year-old girl and the ripple effects her death had on her family and friends. While a bit unsettling and sad, it was a captivating and heartwarming story at the same time. The Almost Moon, though, is a much darker and heartbreaking novel. Helen's childhood was one dominated by her mother's malice and her father's weakness and love while struggling to hold to some degree of family life in a dysfunctional household.

Alice Sebold brings multiple shades of gray to this novel. No person, no event or memory, is uncomplicated. Even Clair at the height of her mental illness remains a sympathetic character. As much as she hates her mother and her role of being her caretaker, Helen also realizes she loves her mother and that they've spent a life together. Helen also realizes how she's like her mother in many ways. When Natalie's son, Hamish, mentions that she hasn't been exactly nice to him over the years, she asks him:

"I'm a real bitch, huh?" I said.
Hamish laughed. "You know what? You kind of can be."
The neighborhood where Clair lived has changed since Helen was a child. It's dominated by single elderly residents who have lived there all their lives and prefer to die in their home rather than be forced to go somewhere else. Yet these neighbors who have spent a lifetime in proximity have remained polite but emotionally distant. Helen loved her father dearly, but he was unable to be strong enough to overcome his wife's domineering. Helen and Natalie have been best friends since they were girls, they both work as nude models for the local college's art classes, and they've been through their divorces together. At the same time, they find their different priorities in life leading them in different directions. When Jake comes to Helen's rescue, she finds the old attractions to him as well as the same annoying behaviors that help pushed them apart.

These dichotomies lie at the heart of The Almost Moon, and Alice Sebold uses them to drive our responses across the emotional spectrum. Understanding the traumas she's suffered at the hands of her mother lends a rational explanation to Helen's actions, and then the horror that she's murdered her mother disgusts both Helen and the reader. The stories in Helen's past often come packed with their own drama, and are moments that would upend anyone's life. At the same time, these stories ring true with familiarity for any dysfunctional family.

The power of this novel lies in the combination of the familiar and the emotional wallop of Helen's actions. The suspense comes from the patient reconstruction of the important events of Helen's life juxtaposed against the impulsive actions of the present, and the push and pull of wondering whether Helen will get away with killing her mother or if she'll have to be responsible for her actions. Alice Sebold has tunneled beneath the surface of an unhappy life, and instead of giving the reader the standard fare for explaining rash actions, she unravels a story of love and hate, attraction and rejection, escape and return, crime and redemption.

The Almost Moon is not a novel to leave you with feelings of warmth and its travels in and out of darkness will unsettle any reader. Its haunting familiarity, though, is perhaps it most unsettling facet and will stay with you long after putting the book down. That's not to say that The Almost Moon should be avoided. Instead, Alice Sebold has written a powerful and emotional novel that should be read, and enjoyed, for the unforgettable story it tells.

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