Alice Sebold's latest: Violence, but without hope of redemption

Review Novel

October 21, 2007|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,[Special to The Sun]

The Almost Moon

By Alice Sebold

Little, Brown / 292 pages / $24.99

Alice Sebold's well-received memoir, Lucky, and her best-selling debut novel, The Lovely Bones, successfully mined the ugly side of contemporary life.

Lucky is a riveting account of Sebold's rape as a college freshman. Its title was prompted by a detective's remark that she was lucky to be alive, since another rape victim at the university had been killed and dismembered. The Lovely Bones is a stunning novel told from the unique perspective of a deceased 14-year-old victim of rape, murder and dismemberment. It received the Bram Stoker Award for best first novel and the American Booksellers Association's Book of the Year Award.

Although brutal, both books have a redemptive twist, partly because they focus on victims who are young, lovely and innocent. But Sebold has a more difficult task this time with The Almost Moon, since she tells the story from the mind of a murderer who's neither youthful nor lovely.

Sebold's second novel operates in the dark territory familiar to her fans - with its effort to shock readers apparent from the first sentence as her protagonist, Helen Knightly, says: "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." The rest of the story, replete with graphic and gratuitous violence and sex, tries to get into the mind of a murderer as she explains why she did it.

According to Helen, her mom, Clair Knightly, is "rotten like brackish water at the bottom of a weeks-old vase of flowers." Demented and agoraphobic, Clair has soiled herself, and her 49-year-old daughter is so offended by the stench that she suffocates her mother by pushing a towel against her face with such force that she hears her mother's nose "snap."

The next scenes show Helen cleaning her 88-year-old mother from feet to privates in raw detail as she remembers grievances from her birth on. Her memories are punctuated by thoughts like this: "You have murdered your mother, true, but we find her exceptionally clean!" which give the book an unsettling ironic tone. They also suggest an eerie logic behind Sebold's whirlwind plot.

With so much happening, the grisly narrative is a page-turner. Sebold fuses present and past flashing back through a family history plagued with neurosis, suicide and numerous destructive behaviors, as she shows Helen coping with the fallout of matricide. Reading the book is like visiting a diabolical fun house where grotesque figures appear in every corner.

Soon Helen is dragging her mother's body to the basement, where she plans to dismember the corpse and hide the pieces in the freezer. She doesn't go through with the plan only because it seems impractical. Instead she tries to get someone to help her dispose of the corpse.

In the 24 hours following the killing, Helen must decide what to do with the rest of her life. Should she run away and avoid the authorities? Commit suicide? Or give herself up? As she makes her decision, she reflects on her growing-up years and contacts family and friends for advice on her predicament.

Each contact shows a different side of Helen, who is obviously not a likable person. Nor is she easy to identify with, partly because of the brutality of her actions and partly because she - despite her tendency to tell all - reveals little. Nevertheless, Sebold tries to round out her character by suggesting that Helen was a dutiful wife to her former husband, Jake, who disliked his mother-in-law and sympathized with Helen even after their divorce. Helen is a caring mother to her two daughters, Emily and Sarah - neither of whom cared for their grandmother. She is a faithful friend to her co-worker, Natalie - or was - until she betrays her.

Helen's state of mind becomes more unsettled as she realizes (now that it's too late) that she loved her mother. This realization adds a moment of pathos and humanity to the character. But all too quickly, the novel shifts to Helen's sordid reflections concerning her relationship with her mother and father, who's also none too mentally stable.

It soon becomes apparent that Helen's parents were ill-matched. A flawless beauty, Clair worked as a showroom model of underwear and support garments in Knoxville, Tenn. With only average looks, Knightly was a junior water inspector in a borrowed suit. But lust won out, and they married and moved to Phoenixville, a Philadelphia suburb where Clair's ambitions smoldered, and she grew unhealthily dependent on her daughter and only child, Helen.

Since she looks somewhat like her father, Helen isn't beautiful. But her body is perfectly proportioned - even now when she's pushing 50. Helen works at a local college where she strips for the introductory-level drawing class, which she does just a few hours after killing her mother. She also has sex with - in a sense, rapes - her best friend's son, who is many years her junior; she steals a car and later a gun; she breaks into a deceased neighbor's house where she writes a suicide note - only to discard it.

The atrocities add up, but there are just too many of them. By the story's end, they've lost much of their shock value. It's hard to understand how someone could kill her mother. It's even harder to understand her subsequent joy ride of sorts. Did she temporarily break down under the pressure of care-giving? Or is she heartless? Who knows? Despite Sebold's efforts, Helen's motivation seems fuzzy. Suffice it to say that she makes Lady Macbeth appear downright saintly by comparison. All of which suggests that this tale, although suspenseful, has few of the redemptive qualities that make the blood and violence tolerable in Sebold's earlier work.

Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. Her next book, "Reading Lips," will be published this year.

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