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Inevitably, Sebold's second novel The Almost Moon has been compared to her runaway success The Lovely Bones. It seems that most readers have been disappointed not to get more of the bittersweet poignancy of a raped and murdered 14-year-old girl observing her family mourning her and trying to get over their loss. Quite why that book was so popular isn't very clear now: while it was dark in its themes, presumably, it was also touching and appealing to many readers. Most of those readers who eagerly picked up Sebold's new work have recoiled in horror, and it's not hard to see why. Early in the first chapter, Helen Knightly "smashes" towels into her demented 88-year-old mother's face, suffocating the old woman as she struggled, and accidentally snapping the tip of her nose. The rest of the novel follows Helen as she goes through the following day or so, recalling the past and facing the future. It's a stunning and gripping story that I would rate as one of the best novels of 2007.
While it isn't strange that Sebold's previous fans were disappointed by this new book, it is more surprising that book critics have been unenthusiastic. Let's review some.
· In the Sunday New York Times Book Review, Lee Siegel bitches "This novel is so morally, emotionally and intellectually incoherent that it's bound to become a best seller."
· Michigo Kakutani, in the New York Times, condemns Sebold for making the common mistake of authors writing about crazy killers of giving readers "merely voyeuristic glimpses of troubled souls running amok and leaving lots of bloody splatter and pain in their wakes."
· Ron Charles in the Washington Post finds fault with the novel because it "lacks the sensitivity and depth to carry off its dramatic opening or explore the complex issues it raises.'
· Joan Smith in the UK Times complains that "Like the earlier novel, this is a very dark subject handled in a bewilderingly inappropriate way."
· Elizabeth Hand, in the Village Voice, argues that the book is emotionally false, and that it is implausible that people would react to the murder as they do.
· One of the few positive reviews is in the PopMatters website, by Michael Antman, who concludes that Sebold has "has achieved something vastly more resonant and real than the fairy tale that made her name."
· In the San Francisco Chronicle, Kim Hedges praises the book for being "simultaneously uncomfortable and absorbing."
· In one of the more comprehensive reviews, Lisa Jennifer Selzman for the Houston Chronicle, judges the novel "a fiercely written, risky work."
· Gail Caldwell in the Boston Globe enthuses that Sebold's work is a "haunting, searing novel."
It is fair enough for reviewers to find the difficult subject matter unpleasant. Not only does Helen kill her own mother, but she also strips and cleans her dead body afterwards, after she had soiled herself. While doing this, she describes her familiarity with her mother's body, gained in the process of giving her regular enemas. What's more, with a hint of intergenerational sex, Helen seduces her best friend's thirty year old son who she has known since he was a baby. It is not just the physicality of the descriptions that will repel some readers, but the intensity of Helen's anger that has built up over decades. Her mother's mental problems are not recent: she was severely agoraphobic for most of her life, and made the rest of the family's life miserable. Gradually it also becomes clear that Helen's father, her main source of emotional help when young, also had his own psychological problems, and suffered with episodes of deep depression. Helen has spent much of her adult life looking after her mother, and she earns a living working as an artist's model. She has married and divorced, and she has two daughters of her own, but there is a strong sense in the novel that her life has been a waste and that her talents have not been developed. She is full of resentment, and this is not new. She explains at one point, "When I was a teenager, I thought every kid spent sweaty summer afternoons in their bedrooms daydreaming of cutting their mother up into pieces and mailing them to parts unknown." So her eventual murder of her mother and putting her in the freezer is, ironically, a dream come true. Maybe not many people share such a fantasy, and find it disturbing to read such a vivid depiction of its enactment, at least outside of the genre of serial killer thrillers.
It's bizarre that some reviewers complain that the book is emotionally incoherent or that Helen's actions make no sense. The whole book is an exploration of what leads to the murder. It's not a Dostoyevskian challenge to morality, but it is a depiction of a woman at the end of her tether, who has had enough of looking after her mother and no longer sees any reason to collaborate in her mother's continued existence. After the killing, she acts wildly, and maybe she is dazed and upset, but she is always relatively rational. It is also bizarre that many reviewers have been so shocked by the murder. Those who have looked after people with long-term dementia often talk about how difficult it is, and some memoirs of looking after people with chronic degenerative diseases have chronicled the experience in detail -- Dirty Details and Elegy for Iris are good examples. It is a common experience for such caregivers to be relieved when the person they were looking after finally dies. It's probably equally common for them to have occasional thoughts of wishing the person would die. In a family such as Helen's, there's nothing strange at all about Helen's urge to kill her mother. The actual murder may be wrong, but it is hard to argue that the old woman had a reasonable quality of life or that much could have been done to improve it.
The most risky part of The Almost Noon is in its exploration of Helen's life long anger at her mother because of her mother's mental illness. We live in a society that stigmatizes mental illness, and so nearly all education about mental illness emphasizes that it is just that, an illness, and people should not be blamed for their illnesses. Of course, that's true enough. But at the same time, people who have lived with mentally ill family members for years do often feel great anger, especially when they too have suffered as a result of the emotional problems of the afflicted family member. There are several books about how to cope with parents who have personality disorders, and others talk about parents with manic depression or mentally ill siblings. People who have gone through these experiences may not all end up feeling resentment or anger, but there's no doubt it's a challenging experience. Sebold's depiction of Helen's point of view is complex and gripping; there's very little to suggest that Helen is herself mentally ill, although she is furiously unhappy and drained. It's a rare portrayal of such a figure, and Sebold maintains a wry dark humor in her observations that, at least for this reader, makes the book a great pleasure to read, rather than the torture that other readers have reported. Maybe to enjoy such writing one has to have a high tolerance for perversity and moral ambiguity, but it would be strange to insist that good novels must be morally straightforward and their main characters must be good role models for their readers.
Nevertheless, there is a genuine concern that Sebold's novel does not demonstrate enough compassionate understanding for Mrs. Knightly's lifelong mental illness, and just shows her as a bitter cold and controlling mother who ruined the lives of those around her. Would we find it morally acceptable to give a sympathetic portrayal of someone who committed a racist murder or a misogynist man who kills his wife due to her perceived failings as a woman? That's possibly a difficult question, although I'd say yes, there's no problem with this, so long as there was some reason to give such a portrayal. However, I'd also say that this is not a good parallel: Sebold's Helen does not act out of hatred for the mentally ill. She acts for much more personal reasons, and is indeed a sympathetic and open minded person. The Almost Moon shows Mrs. Knightly as a difficult and basically unloving woman, and shows Helen's life as a reaction to this, and her reaction isn't so incomprehensible or even unreasonable. Furthermore, we see how Helen as a teenager suffers as a result of people's hostile attitudes towards her mother's mental illness, to the extent that the neighborhood men get together and tell Helen that she and her family should move away. In short, there is plenty in the book to show an understanding of Mrs. Knightly's plight and the importance of not blaming the mentally ill for their condition.
The novel is more about Helen's life as a woman who has made many sacrifices for others, and her relationship to her mother, daughters, best friend, and her ex-husband. It's especially about the tension between Helen's constant battle with her mother and her identification with her. One might debate whether Sebold's portrayal of Helen is ultimately cohesive and convincing, but it is certainly a rich one, and compares well with that of other current novelists such as Anita Shreve or even Anita Brookner. Even if Helen is inconsistent and morally confused, that does not make her a unbelievable character, because many of us have such failings.
The reading of the unabridged audiobook by Joan Allen is very strong. Her performance helps to make Helen a character one can identify with, and she also brings out the humor of her observations.
The Almost Moon is if anything more memorable than The Lovely Bones, and is a far more rewarding work to reflect on. While it won't please all readers, those who are ready to give it a chance and can endure its difficult subject matter will find it is a wonderful and morally deep novel.
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.
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