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Friday, November 30, 2007

The Almost Moon

Alice Sebold is no stranger to violence and her writing reflects that fact. Sebold, who was raped at the end of her freshman year at Syracuse, bluntly told of that experience in Lucky (as in “lucky to be alive”), her 1999 non-fiction debut. A few years later she struck gold with an unlikely success about a brutally murdered fourteen-year-old girl who narrates her own story, including all the murder details, in The Lovely Bones. In both cases, Sebold was criticized by some readers and critics for being too explicit about the violence that characterizes her work.

So readers of The Almost Moon, Sebold’s second novel, should know by now that she is not bashful about exposing the dark side of human nature and that, in the process, she pulls no punches. But she has outdone herself this time.

Helen Knightly admits in the book’s opening sentence that killing her mother was easy. It was not something that she had planned to do that day but she finally reached a breaking point while struggling with the mechanics of cleaning up her 88-year-old dementia-suffering mother after she had soiled herself. It was easy, and she had no regrets about the murder or how nonchalantly she handled the body when it was over. She finally felt free of the mentally ill woman who had ruined her life and it seemed a wonder that it had taken her so long to reach this point.

After calling her ex-husband to confess what she had done and to ask for his help, Knightly spends the next 24 hours reflecting on her horrible childhood and trying to come up with a plan that will allow her to escape punishment for her crime. When she realizes that the police already consider her to be the prime suspect in her mother’s murder she has to choose between surrendering, running, or taking her own life. None of the choices are simple, and she seriously considers them all.

The Almost Moon is a painful book to read, especially the first few chapters that detail the murder and immediate minutes following the crime. Many readers will consider, as I did, abandoning the book at some point during those early pages. But those who stay with it will be rewarded with an interesting look into the mind of Helen Knightly, the middle-aged product of the dysfunctional family that shaped her into the woman she is. Although she never becomes a sympathetic character, it does seem sad to see that Helen will not manage to escape her mother’s influence. This realization, in fact, makes her wonder which of her own two adult daughters is most likely to succumb to the mental illness that seems to have cursed her family from one generation to the next.

This book is not for readers who demand and expect happy endings from their reading. This is life through the eyes of Alice Sebold. It is not pretty, but it is brutally honest.

Rated at: 4.0

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