October 30, 2007 | Comments ()

By Miscellaneous | Books | October 30, 2007 |


Something is not quite right about Alice Sebold’s newest novel, The Almost Moon, even though at first it seems a solid enough effort. It’s not a lack of intriguing plot (a woman’s murder of her mother), nor is it what I like to call “the descent into cheese,” a problem that, in my opinion, plagued her first novel, The Lovely Bones. The novel instead suffers from flat characters, including what might be the dumbest murderer ever, a middle-aged woman without any real sense of self awareness. Furthermore, The Almost Moon lacks any real depth or insight — and yet, the book can still be deemed a success, for The Almost Moon is pretty much The Lovely Bones redux: disturbing, popular fiction that keeps readers riveted while leaving them relieved that their lives, however complicated they might be, are not quite so bad.

Like The Lovely Bones, The Almost Moon hooks the reader from its opening scene of murder. After that, it’s difficult to put the book down, and its almost 300 pages quickly fly by. The novel begins as Helen Knightly murders her elderly mother, Clair. Whether this murder is due to pity (Helen’s mother has been declining for some time) or vengeance (Clair, having suffered from mental illness her entire life, has hardly been a good mother, or even a passable one) remains to be seen, and Sebold spends the rest of novel exploring both the past and the present that has brought Helen to this moment of crisis.

Sebold takes us deep into the family’s past, exploring Clair’s mental illness and the havoc it has wreaked (and still continues to inflict) on the rest of the family, who are not without their own issues. Helen’s father suffered from his own initially unspecified illness, and Helen, an only child, was left to pick up the pieces and support her mother after his untimely death. Helen’s adulthood is also explored, from her early and troubled marriage (and her subsequent role as the imperfect mother) to her final state as a middle-aged divorcee who still, after all these years, must grapple with Clair’s stranglehold.

As the reader comes to understand the complex web that connects this family, it soon becomes clear that what appeared simple at first is actually much more complicated. It is not simple enough to say that Clair’s mental illness, which forced Helen into an early adulthood, created a rift between mother and child that would never heal. And while it is too facile to dismiss Helen’s murder of her mother as revenge for a childhood lost - even, it becomes clear, for an adulthood lost - so too is it impossible to judge Helen’s actions as mercy. The lines between victim and perpetrator are blurred, but finding a single point of blame is beside the point.

Sebold gives us no clear-cut answers; she allows the characters’ pasts and presents to speak for themselves, creating a maze of uncertainty that prohibits black-and-white judgments regarding anyone’s actions. But The Almost Moon is not about answers; ultimately, it’s about a family in crisis, about cause and effect. Perhaps it is for this reason that I cannot praise the novel, for, when it comes to such topics, Sebold doesn’t offer anything new. The characters’ plight evokes neither pity nor even amusement; in fact, after reading The Almost Moon, I was left as cold as Clair, and perhaps even an attempt at insight would have left me moved. Instead, Sebold offers exactly what we already know: Parents, whether living or dead, greatly affect their children. People make mistakes. Redemption is possible, but only if one seeks it. And so it goes.

Bibliolatrist possesses extraordinary powers that enable her to read tall books in a single bound. As Jennifer McKeown, she spends her days as a mild-mannered English teacher living outside Philadelphia. She blogs over at Bibliolatry.

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Lovely Bones Redux

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold / Jennifer McKeown

Books | October 30, 2007 | Comments ()




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