The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold
Fiction; 291 pgs
Rating: (Very Good)
First Sentence: When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.
Reason for Reading: Although I had always planned to read this book, having enjoyed the author’s first novel, The Lovely Bones, I admit that I was in no hurry after reading some rather scathing reviews of The Almost Moon. My boss made me promise not to buy the book for myself a couple of months ago, saying that she would buy it and loan it to me after she read it.
About a month before the book’s release, she told me about a review she read that made her change her mind. This was not a book she wanted to read, she told me. And yet she did just that. She thrust the book in my hands the beginning of this past week and told me to hurry up and read it and then pass it on to another colleague of ours she is insisting read the book. She refused to give me a hint as to whether or not she liked the book. I imagine I will find out soon enough.
This is my first selection for the Just4thehelluvit Challenge.
Comments: A book—a story—can have several different purposes. It can affect each individual reader in a different way. Much of the criticism I have heard in regard to Alice Sebold’s latest book centers around the characters and just how difficult they are to like or relate to. I imagine that has a lot to do with the decisions that they make, especially the protagonist of the novel, Helen Knightly.
Helen drops everything and attends to her mother, whose health is failing, when called by the kindly neighbor who checks in now and then. It appears that Helen’s mother, who suffers from dementia, is worse off than before, and Helen comes to the realization that her mother can no longer go on like she has been. As she is preparing to bath her mother before calling an ambulance, Helen finds herself standing over the woman who she has loved and hated all her life and takes the life out of her, stifling her with a towel. Helen now must decide what to do next and the journey she takes, both in memory and in struggling with what she has just done, carries the reader through the rest of the novel. It is a dark, tragic and compelling story.
What struck me most about Helen is that she comes across at times as unfeeling and yet that is far from the truth. To outsiders and even her own family and friends, she may appear cold and judgmental. However, on the inside, Helen is a wounded soul. She keeps herself at a distance from people and even from herself, in part a result of her upbringing and by means of a coping mechanism she has never overcome. Her childhood had been full of secrets, that big white elephant in the living room that no one ever talked about, and parents who never quite gave her the attention she so craved. Helen carried some of this with her into her adulthood, and it had an impact on her own family, her children and her marriage.
Helen’s mother is the character I found myself feeling most sorry for. She suffered from a mental illness and was the least understood. She lashed out at those around her to exert some control over her life, often causing pain and suffering to those closest to her. She is not an easy woman to sympathize with as a result. The father seemed more together and even more likeable than his daughter and his wife, however, he too carried a heavy weight on his shoulders and struggled with his own mental health issues.
This is not the first difficult subject Alice Sebold has taken on. Her books Lucky and The Lovely Bones have both earned praise and criticism over the years. They deal with subject matters that are not easy to digest. The Almost Moon is no different. Her latest novel is beautifully written and yet a very disturbing and uncomfortable book to read. If the reader can first get past that, it makes for an interesting case study.
The overwhelming feeling I felt throughout the novel was one of great sadness for all of the characters. Certain of life’s events could not be helped or controlled, others could—as humans we all make choices, and not always the best ones. What Helen did, killing her mother, was horrific. Not a moment, not a word, went by when I hoped she would get away with it. The cumulating of events and leading up to her mother’s death, offer a glimpse into the motivation and why of it all. It is not an excuse but a possible reason to her actions.
I have a feeling I will be in the minority of readers who actually liked this book. It is not an easy book to read, and it will not leave the reader feeling uplifted in any way. It is not a book of hope, but one of tragedy and pain. This is not a book for everyone.
Listen to a NPR interview with the author. Be forewarned; it is full of spoilers.