Sunday, October 14, 2007

Review—The Almost Moon

Darkness looms

Alice Sebold is an unhappy writer, or rather, she is the writer of unhappy stories. Her characters wander the grim space between the socially adjusted and the viscerally misfit. And it is in these nooks that she finds her muse. Her bestselling "The Lovely Bones" was the tale of a dead girl who speaks to the reader from heaven. A heart-wrenching portrait of a tragedy breaking apart a family, it was one of 2002's major triumphs.

In "Almost Moon" the territory is as desolate and the subject matter as drenched in darkness. "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." So begins Helen Knightly on the evening she has killed her dementia-affected mother. Herself a mother of two, Helen had been looking after her mother since the suicide of her father.

On that fateful night, after years of long and numbing drudgery, Helen brings herself up to snuffing the life out of her old mother with a towel. As a premise, it's a fairly robust one. This is not a usual case of matricide. It's the cry of a woman caring for an ungrateful, bitter hag who's losing her mind.

But Sebold fritters it away. Helen loses the reader's sympathy within the first 50 pages as the novel progresses to detail her attempts at dealing with the dead body. Over the next 24 hours that mirror the course of the novel, the reader is taken into the depths of the Knightlys' history, often with abrasive descriptions keeping us company:

"I could hear the neighbor's baby scream. It was a child whom I had never seen but whose screams were the unhappiest I'd ever heard. And long. They arced and warbled and started up again. It was as if the mother had given birth to an eight-pound ball of rage."

Rage is what the reader feels at such gratuitous displays of grief spilling over from sadness to turn into something sinister. The story of Helen's mother, who had been a model and whose New York ambitions were curtailed by a quick marriage, is never fully explored to justify her dissatisfaction with the world at large.

In fact, Sebold does not seem to have decided whose story this is meant to be. Is it that of Helen, with her broken marriage to the considerate Jake, or that of the mother, who flits through the book as a corpse, dead or alive?

The book is a collection of dazed soliloquies aimed at seducing the reader into lamenting the Knightlys' collective tragedies. Sadly, this "American Beauty" fails to enthuse.

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Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

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