Smother Mother

A tormented daughter replies the hard way in Alice Sebold's The Almost Moon

Sociopaths tend to be charismatic. Alice Sebold's new novel, The Almost Moon, suffers from a fatal flaw: Its unbalanced narrator, Helen, is more of a kvetcher than a compelling monster. Sebold's two earlier books, the bestselling The Lovely Bones and Lucky, a memoir, were nuanced, deeply unsettling accounts of personal trauma. And The Almost Moon opens promisingly:

"When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily. Dementia, as it descends, has a way of revealing the core of the person affected by it. My mother's core was rotten like the brackish water at the bottom of a weeks-old vase of flowers."

Helen is 49, a divorced grandmother who supports herself as an artist's model and tends to her 88-year-old mother, Clair, with ill-suppressed resentment. Pathologically self-absorbed, Clair is judgmental, suspicious of the neighbors who check in on her, and just plain mean to her only child.

Dysfunction junction: Sebold
Rebecca Sapp
Dysfunction junction: Sebold

Details

The Almost Moon
By Alice Sebold
Little, Brown and Company, 291 pp., $24.99

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But she's also pathetic and frail, "a totemic presence." Clair's vulnerability, as much as her sheer nastiness, seems to be what finally drives her daughter to kill her after the old woman soils herself during an afternoon visit. It's an unpleasant, drawn-out scene that ends with Clair's nose cracking beneath the pressure of the towels her daughter uses to suffocate her. Helen then cuts the clothing from her mother's corpse, washes the body, and drags it into the basement, where she enacts a ritual scalping and neatly shears off her mother's long braid.The Almost Moon unfolds during the next 24 hours, following a tedious switchback trail between Helen's tormented childhood and her attempts to come to grips with what she's just done.

Clair was a beautiful lingerie model who married her husband on a whim. Her inner life mostly consisted of gazing upon framed images of herself in ecru slips, with her daughter as rapt audience. This bleak narcissism hardens into an agoraphobia that has disastrous repercussions when she's unable to intervene in a horrific accident outside her front door. Young Helen is caught up in the tide of blame and accusation that follows. Her father succumbs to depression and eventually kills himself. Helen's response to all this family dysfunction is murderous fantasies: "When I was a teenager, I thought every kid spent sweaty summer afternoons in their bedrooms, daydreaming of cutting their mother up into little pieces and mailing them to parts unknown."

Sebold has taken on the admirable challenge of creating an unsympathetic protagonist, but she undermines the effort by surrounding Helen with a gallery of torpid, sometimes implausible supporting characters. Helen's father is maddeningly passive. Her ex-husband Jake inexplicably drops everything and flies cross-country to be at her side when Helen calls to confess her crime. Her best friend Natalie is barely present as a character, though Natalie's hunky 30-year-old son, Hamish, gets the most thankless role, as the foil in two perfunctory, squirm-inducing sex scenes with Helen.

Only the enigmatic Mr. Forrest—a bachelor neighbor who collects books and shows grave kindness to both Helen and her mother—stands out in this crowd, despite the fact that Sebold has him mouth platitudes like "You will always be stronger than she is. . . . You don't know that yet, but it's true," and "That was her illness, Helen, not her."

And while Helen and Clair may both be mentally ill, their illness primarily manifests itself as anhedonia, which on the page, as in life, becomes extremely wearisome.

The Almost Moon is a dispiriting novel, not least because it's the work of a talented writer who seems to have lost her way. Helen's race against the inevitable discovery of her mother's corpse is more a numbing trudge. Sebold's evocation of people trapped in sad, suburban half-lives is undermined by trite metaphors. Helen, Clair, and Natalie all earn a living as models. Helen's father constructs plywood cut-outs of his family. Helen's ex-husband makes art encased in ice, and Helen herself observes the obvious: "When I inserted the key in the lock of my door, I saw my own epitaph: SHE LIVED SOMEBODY ELSE'S LIFE."

Worse, the book feels emotionally false. No one reacts to Helen's disclosure of her crime by running to dial 911. Instead, their ruminations, and hers, make matricide sound like self-help therapy:

"Until today, I realized, it had been an innocent urge I carried inside me like a spleen, optional but always present, in some way part of the whole."

"You asked me yesterday if I ever thought of killing my father. Well, I did. I think a lot of people do. . . . They just aren't very honest about it. You actually went ahead and did it."

"My mom won't forgive you," he said. "She's turning very moralistic in her old age."

The literature of female trauma and dysfunction is a thriving genre, and Alice Sebold has written at least one classic in the field. Maybe she'll write another, but The Almost Moon isn't it.

 
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