R&R 076 | The Almost Moon
The Almost Moon
First published in: 2007
This edition: Picador, 2008
Cover photography by Darren Berrecloth / Wildcard Images UK
This book, The Almost Moon, I wanted to read because I loved, absolutely loved, The Lovely Bones (by the same author) when I'd read it several years ago. I admired Sebold's boldness (no pun intended) and how she could write a book so beautiful about a subject that chills you to the bone. A frightening view of a girl, a family and their worst nightmare. I probably wouldn't have given The Almost Moon a second glance, actually, not even a first glance, had The Lovely Bones not existed. I know I'm not the only one.
Upon reading the first sentence of The Almost Moon, which is Sebold's third book, I exclaimed to myself, "Whoa!" and got into the book immediately, feeling mildly ashamed of myself for not seeing this book as a great book in its own right, with plenty of potential of its own – I had instead looked at it as a book riding on the success of The Lovely Bones.
There are similarities between the books, yes. They both cover horrendous subjects with clarity and without fear. But whereas The Lovely Bones is haunting but gentle, the Almost Moon is harrowing, and darkens with every turn of the page, attacking from the get go.
There are two ways to go. Continue or stop. Do or don't. That first sentence gave me that choice. That sentence in which Helen, the narrator, in a seemingly "all in all" tone, divulges immediately that she killed her mother (Clair), and that it went easily. Daring statement to make. Daring way to start. Daring choice for a narrator. Helen, a middle-aged artist's model who indeed does kill her 88 year-old demented mother in this book, is a character most people would instantly (and to use the word again, easily) dislike. Making it easy to dislike the book itself. A risk.
I didn't dislike the book.
I didn't dislike Helen.
The Almost Moon is cold and unapologetic, and while nothing that happens in the book is excusable (nothing Helen did is excusable), I accepted what I read. Alice Sebold's direct language completely captivated me. She's not someone who beats around the bush. And in this book, she doesn't prettify, or over-compensate a character's shortcomings with sentimentality. There's candour and openness about the lowest of human conditions and actions.
This is a book about that moment when people snap, and make decisions that will alter their lives, and the lives of those surrounding them, with a harsh finale. This is not an uncommon phenomenon. People snap. Every day. People kill other people. Every day.
In books, murder is a subject that often belongs to crime novels and whodunits. CSI's spray their luminol and find their answers via blood stains and spray patterns, DNA, prints and fibers. Criminal profilers, through careful deduction and application of psychological theories, manage to find who's responsible. It's clear cut. It's formulaic. The novel ends, the killer caught. Success.
Alice Sebold takes the subject of being-a-murderer out of its comfort zone. She doesn't use blood stain analysis; there are no confession sessions featuring Brenda Leigh Johnson. The Almost Moon is a confrontational, very descriptive, unblinking narrative told openly by the murderer herself, a woman so seemingly normal and average, she could be your neighbour. Alice Sebold challenges the reader to step out of their comfort zone, too.
I don't think Sebold wants you to understand or forgive Helen. (Or sympathize with her.) That's hardly the point. This book is raw and cynical, but never once did I pity Helen, who literally suffocated her mother Clair, who in turn figuratively suffocated Helen.
In every day life, murder happens, all too often. And usually, it's not as crystal clear as a detective novel. And in a lot of cases, there's no rational reason for it. Or a solution. No happy endings for all. Helen snapped profoundly, and murdered her mother – whom she both loved and hated, whom she wanted to hold close and let go. And in the 24 hours since (the time frame of, the book, meaning the ending of the book doesn't discuss long term consequences) she unravels. This book describes a cold act, and a woman's rather messed up mind during it, and immediately after it. Because that's what murder is. It's cruel, it's messy, it's sick – and it happens all too often. Sebold described it as is. No romanticism.
Now whether or not I recommend this book depends on whether or not you can be open to Sebold's intentions, and whether or not you can let go of The Lovely Bones. There are no descriptions of heaven here; The Almost Moon is about a woman who murders her mother, right here on earth.
R&R series © Karin E. Lips 2008, 2009 and beyond