Janet TAY reviews The Almost Moon (2007)
Review by JANET TAY
Can Alice Sebold’s eagerly-awaited sophomore effort match the huge impact of her début, The Lovely Bones? Well, she’s in shocking form, says JANET TAY. In her second novel, nice middle-aged ladies aren’t what they seem.
THE ALMOST MOON
By Alice Sebold
(Little, Brown and Co., 304pp)
YOU WON’T COME ACROSS many opening lines that grab your attention quicker and more effectively than the one in Alice Sebold’s The Almost Moon (2007): “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”
But then, this is the author whose début, the best-selling The Lovely Bones (2002), offered this opener: “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”
That The Lovely Bones had more substance to offer than a shocking beginning was amply demonstrated by the critical and popular acclaim that kept it on best-seller lists for years after its publication in 2002. Can Sebold’s sophomore effort, surely written under the pressure of “great expectations,” compare to The Lovely Bones?
Well, anything compared to that highly disturbing novel would be subdued, even The Almost Moon’s tale of matricide. But, by any other standard, this is a terrifying literary ride.
Everything moves fast in this novel: After Helen Knightly’s confession, the subsequent events unfold in a span of just 24 hours.
It is no easy feat to engage and sustain a reader’s interest with minimal change in space and venue (suburban Phoenixville, a place “frozen in time” as Jake, Helen’s ex-husband, puts it), but Sebold’s deft handling of flashbacks and fluid timelines provides a sense of movement while infusing Helen’s fragmentary childhood memories with the urgency of the present.
The flashbacks contrast her mother’s callousness and disdain towards her with the loving relationship Helen has with her father as they share the burden of coping with the mother’s fragility and consequent agoraphobia.
As Helen grows up wondering if she hates her mother, her father tries to comfort her by using the analogy of the moon to describe the woman who is the bane of their existence: the “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 rhythm and tides.”
Helen’s father is a symbol of strength and stability to her; it never occurs to her that he too could possess weaknesses or experience sorrow—until he commits suicide.
Emotionally abandoned by a mother who did not know how to love and physically abandoned by a father who did, Helen grows up to become a hardened woman with troubled relationships. She says, “Knightlys never called for help, and Corbins, my mother’s blood, would rather use forks to stab out their throats. We dealt with things in private. We cut off our fingers and feet—our hands, our legs, and our lives—but we did not, no matter what, ask for help. Need was like a weed, a virus, a mold. Once you admitted to it, it spread and ruled.”
It doesn’t take a psychologist to predict that Helen’s confused and damaging relationships with her parents may ultimately ruin her own marital relationship as well. Her ex-husband Jake, however, remains a symbol of strength and reliance for her—not unlike the role played by her father—but unwittingly becomes an accomplice in her efforts to cover up the crime she has committed.
Sebold’s laconic prose echoes a combination of satirical novelist Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club, the basis for the cult movie) and the late Raymond Carver, famed for his short, succinct stories. There are even hints of Ernest Hemingway’s masculine brevity.
Her crisp and incisive writing has the reader accepting the most outrageous situations as normal, doing so by muting, yet still maintaining, the horror of the moment. She takes us to a place that can best be described as having a terrifying calm, and it’s a comfortable place to be in while savouring this novel.
Sebold also has a knack for successfully combining the idyllic with the horrific: kindly, middle-aged women killing in a halcyon setting or spending “sweaty summer afternoons in their bedrooms, daydreaming of cutting their mother up into little pieces and mailing them to parts unknown.”
The flashbacks Sebold handles so adroitly throughout the book are more than mere literary techniques. They might seem to exist to provide a necessary justification for Helen’s actions—after all, one does not just up and kill one’s mother in a quiet suburban neighbourhood. But make no mistake, Helen Knightly does not ask for sympathy or understanding for her actions.
Her childhood memories simply provide the missing pieces of the puzzle and show that we are all connected in one way or another, that our actions, no matter how insignificant they may seem to us, do matter, and that, ultimately, we have to be accountable to one another.
In the midst of all the terror, Sebold effectively inserts Helen’s philosophical musings that prompt the reader to consider the greyness in between moments when morality and reality clash, that nothing is ever black and white in life—not marriage, not family and certainly not murder.
Book courtesy of MPH Distributors
Review first published in StarMag, Sunday Star, on November 18, 2007