The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

by John Boland

Alice Sebold loves to grab you with her opening lines. Her 1999 memoir, Lucky, begins: “In the tunnel where I was raped,  a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheatre, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered.” Her first novel, the 2002 bestseller The Lovely Bones, starts: “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” And the first sentence of her new novel declares: “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily” The message in each case is both clear and combative: try putting the book down after that!

As it turns out, though, the difficult part is to keep reading. The first chapter of Lucky features a rape that’s more luridly described than the reader feels is necessary, while it’s hard to engage with a narrator (in this instance Sebold herself) whose dominant tone is one of aggressive self-regard and who, when her well-meaning father asks if she’d like something to eat, retorts: “That would be nice considering the only thing I’ve had in my mouth in the last twenty-four hours is a cracker and a cock.”

On the surface, The Lovely Bones is more winning, though in essence it’s just as solipsistic and manipulative. Its teenage heroine, murdered and dismembered by a neighbour, speaks to her family, her friends and the reader from beyond the grave and in the process offers a therapeutic, determinedly feel-good tale of redemption. Published in the aftermath of 9/11, it obviously touched a chord with hundreds of thousands of Americans who bought into the comforting fantasy of a loved one who, though seemingly perished, was actually somewhere close by offering solace for their grief and salvation for their souls.

In The Almost Moon, Sebold is back with a first-person narrator whose self-absorbed company you don’t really want to share – and without any sense that the author feels as impatient with her as you do. By the end of the first chapter, 49-year-old Helen has murdered the 88-year-old mother whose dementia has been driving her to distraction, but though were assured that the mother’s personality has been monstrous long before the soiling of herself that caused the narrator to finally snap, it’s the daughter who registers from the outset as the repellent personality and you wish that the author thought so, too.

But there’s no apparent distancing in such observations as “My mother was a passed-out bag of bones who reeked of shit” or “A few moments later I was wiping the shit from my mother’s rubbery thighs” or “This was not the first time I’d been face-to-face with my mother’s genitalia” – just a rancid feeling  as the reader registers such ill-judged crassness.

After that the book soon loses all psychological and even narrative credibility. The narrator’s ex-husband flies in to help her cover up the killing but not before she finds time to have sex in the back seat of her car with the son of her best friend – not once, not twice, but three times – and to turn up for a life-drawing class in which she’s the nude model while the cops wait to interview her.

But such farcical developments are almost irrelevant because by now the reader has had more than enough of this unpleasant and irritating woman, even if Sebold doesn’t seem to see her that way. The blurb says that the book is about family ties, the meaning of devotion and “the fragility of the boundary that separates us from our darkest impulses.” If Sebold had got the tone right, that might have been true.

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