Book Review: The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

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When I read the final page and then closed the back cover of this book, I thought to myself, ‘That was terrible.’ It’s generally not the feeling a reader – or an author – wants to have. And unfortunately, it wasn’t that I just suddenly felt that way. I’d felt that way throughout most of the book. But I wanted to read it all the way to the end and give it the chance that all books deserve. But my feelings didn’t change.

The subject matter of The Almost Moon is not easy. Helen Knightly is an only child and, since her father’s death, the only person willing and able to look after her elderly mother, Clair. Clair is eighty-eight and although Helen describes her as suffering from dementia on the very first page of the book, she has struggled all her life with what a neighbour tells a young Helen is ‘mental illness’. That might be how it started but now she’s also cruel and parasitic and has prevented Helen from really living her own life. Within the first chapter, Clair is dead and Helen is the one who has killed her. But almost as soon as her mother is dead, Helen realises she hasn’t thought her actions through and doesn’t know what to do next.

From start to finish, the book spans just over twenty-four hours. It’s not that much happens in those twenty-four hours. Instead, Helen spends a lot of time reminiscing about growing up, getting married, having children, getting divorced and moving back to her home town to give us the background that perhaps the author thinks makes her actions if not okay, then entirely understandable.

The potential for this story to be heartbreaking and powerful and remembered long after it is finished being read is there. But the execution prevents it from happening. Because The Almost Moon is an almost book with almost characters, an almost plot and no real ending.

Helen is the least interesting character in the book but because she narrates it, she is in every scene. I wanted to hear the perspectives of the other characters – her ex-husband, Jake, who she calls to ask for help almost as soon as her mother is dead; her best friend, Natalie, who is strangely absent for most of the book; Natalie’s son, Hamish, who has sex with Helen after she asks him to ‘lie on top of’ her; Mr Forrest, the neighbour who has lived next door to Clair for fifty years; Emily, the daughter who doesn’t approve of Helen generally; and Sarah, the daughter Helen worries is just a little too much like her.

Alice Sebold’s first book was the celebrated The Lovely Bones, a story about a parent unable to protect his daughter from a killer. There’s a sense of similarity here, a daughter unable to protect her mother from a killer, even though that killer is the daughter herself. The book itself reminds me a lot of a scene in The Lake House (the movie with Keanu Reeves as Alex and Sandra Bullock as Kate). Kate and her mother are sitting in Daley Plaza having lunch and Kate sees a book in her mother’s bag.

Kate: What’s this?
Kate’s mother: That’s nothing. It’s one of your father’s.
Kate: Dostoyevsky?
Kate: Oh, yeah. It’s about a guy who breaks the neck of a poor woman with an axe and, so far, keeps wandering around regretting it.

Of course, the details are different in The Almost Moon but the sentiment is much the same. Helen kills her mother and regrets it, then doesn’t regret it, then regrets it again, then does a bunch of things she would never have done if she hadn’t killed her mother. Perhaps if I was generous, I could say it’s a commentary on life these days, people who act first and only consider their actions later. I’m not going to be that generous because the book doesn’t deserve it.

It’s a genuine shame when an author with such obvious talent produces a work like this because it will taint everything else she does in the future. No matter how many other terrific books she writes, this will always be in her back catalogue spoiling the mix.

2 stars

*First published on Goodreads 16 October 2016

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