Don’t expect to have a cheery, upbeat reaction to Alice Sebold’s second novel, The Almost Moon. The book’s narrator, Helen Knightly, opens with the chilly lines: “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.” Not exactly warm introductory words, and the tortured character’s emotional pain hammers steadily throughout the story, even to the last sentence.
Yet it’s a wonderful, often brilliant, if difficult book, and a highly nuanced read.
This should come as no surprise to fans of Sebold: her memoir, Lucky, dealt with the former journalist’s brutal collegiate rape and subsequent fall into heroin addiction; her first and wildly successful novel, The Lovely Bones (5 million books in print), had a murdered child narrate the extraordinary tale. So Sebold is no stranger to searing emotional pain, and once again her terrain is the family.
Helen Knightly is a middle-aged woman caring for her ailing and elderly mother, a woman she claims to hate. Her mother, Claire, a former undergarment model, is haunted, emotionally absent, and mentally ill; Helen’s father was emotionally available and yet also mentally ill. It’s the mental illness—lived with but never truly faced and named—that destroys this family, and Sebold shows with exceptional skill how emotionally flat children become in such environments.
The story unfolds over 24 hours: Helen murders her mother, makes love to her best friend’s son, reunites with her divorced husband, confronts her two daughters, unravels the facts of her father’s violent death, and faces her own fate as a child of mental illness.
The fast-paced plot explores the complex ties between mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, wives and lovers, and most important, the sometimes permeable lines between love and hate.
If you’re in the mood to tackle such big issues, you’ll love The Almost Moon. Just be ready not to warm quickly toward many of the characters, much of the sad plot, and what really happens when family demons run rampant through generations without end. But speak they must.
Janet Kinosian, a Los Angeles-based journalist, writes for The Los Angeles Times, Reader's Digest, and dozens of other publications. She recently reviewed Going Gray for AARP The Magazine Online.
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