email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
10th Grade202432 Stories4th of July99 DaysA Change in AltitudeA Demon in My ViewA Dream of WolvesA Finely Tuned Apathy MachineA Heart of StoneA Life Lived RidiculouslyA Multitude of SinsA Parting GiftA Question of BloodA Quiet PlaceA Red Heart of MemoriesA River SutraA Short History of Tractors in UkrainianA Slight Trick of the MindA Stir of BonesA Thousand Miles from NowhereA Voyage Long and StrangeA Wedding in December About a BoyAbraham LincolnAcross the River and Into the TreesActs of GodAfrican PsychoAfter DarkAfter YouAfter You'd GoneAfterwardsAgenda for MurderAliens in the Prime of Their LivesAll Alone in the UniverseAll Families Are PsychoticAll in the MindAll the Way HomeAltered LandAlternatives to SexAmanda's WeddingAmelia RulesAmericaAmerica AmericaAmnesiaAmong the DepartedAn Object of BeautyAngelsAngry Youth Comix #2AnimosityAnne SextonAre You Experienced?Aristotle and Poetic JusticeAristotle DetectiveArlington ParkArtemis FowlAs Hot as It Was You Ought to Thank MeAsking For MurderAtonementAway Laughing on a Fast CamelBabylon and Other StoriesBad BoyBad SeedBag Of BonesBalancing ActsBarbara the Slut and Other PeopleBeach RoadBeat the ReaperBeautiful GirlsBed of RosesBefore I Go to SleepBefore the FrostBeg the QuestionBeginner's GreekBellyBeneath the SkinBenedictionBest New American VoicesBig BrotherBilly and GirlBiteBlack & WhiteBlack HelicoptersBlack Market TruthBlameBlanketsBleed for MeBlind SightBlonde FaithBlood, Salt, WaterBlueprints for Building Better GirlsBody SurfingBoneMan's DaughtersBoneyardBoneyardBoomsdayBorder CrossingBoth Ways Is the Only Way I Want ItBoysBracketBrain TrustBrava, ValentineBreaking Out of BedlamBreathing UnderwaterBrick LaneBridge of SighsBridget JonesBridget Jones's DiaryBrief Interviews with Hideous MenBruisesBrŁselBullyBurn, Bitchy, BurnButterflyBy BloodBy The Sea ShoreCalled to KillCanadaCanvasCaricatureCase HistoriesCellCemetery DanceChange of HeartChangesChasing the DimeChild 44Cinema PanopticumCinnamon KissCircle NineCity of the LostClay's WayClose toYouClose Your EyesCloud 9 AffairCoincidenceCold CaseCold HitCold in HandCollected StoriesCome Up and See Me SometimeComfort and JoyCompulsionConfessions of a ShopaholicConfessions of an Ex-GirlfriendConsider LoveCouch FictionCrispinCross CountryCruddyCrumpleCutCypherDaddy's GirlsDakotaDamageDancing After HoursDanger in High PlacesDanger! Cross CurrentsDante's PoisonDante's WoodDarkest FearDating Without NovocaineDead BoysDead Canaries Don't SingDead EndDead EvenDeadly AdviceDeadly ButterflyDeadly GambleDeaf SentenceDear American AirlinesDear Zoe,Death of a Department ChairDeath of an AddictDeath with InterruptionsDeath Without TenureDeceitDecemberDeceptionDefending JacobDeliverance From EvilDemonologyDepraved HeartDisobedienceDisturbing GroundDivine JusticeDivisaderoDixie RoadDr. Jekyll & Mr. HydeDriftlessDuplicityEcstasyEmerald City BluesEmpire FallsEmpress of the WorldEnd over EndEven DeadlierEven Dogs in the WildEvenings at FiveEvery Visible ThingEye ContactFaking ItFalling ManFamily HistoryFascinationFat Angie Fear of the DarkFeeling Sorry for CeliaFellsideFeminist Philosophy And Science FictionFever 1793Field of BloodFinal JeopardyFlashpointFlorid StatesForgive the MoonFortunate SonFortune's RocksFour Blind MiceFour CornersFred the ClownFrom Girls to GrrlzGallatin CanyonGaudi AfternoonGenerosityGeorgia Under WaterGhost at the WindowGiftedGiganticGirl in TranslationGirl Walking BackwardsGirls Closed InGirls Like UsGod HeadGod Is DeadGod Is Not OneGods and BeastsGoldengroveGone GirlGood GriefGrace, Tamar and Laszlo the BeautifulGuises of DesireHalf In Love With DeathHappiness Sold SeparatelyHappy FamilyHappy Mutant Baby PillsHappy Now?HarleyHarry Potter and the Sorcererís StoneHeartbeatHeftHell's IslandHey, Wait...High HeatHolidays On IceHope in a JarHot MilkHotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel WorldHotels of North AmericaHouse of JavaHow a Gunman Says GoodbyeHow People ChangeHow to Be GoodHow to Set a Fire and WhyHug MeI Can See YouI Don't Know How She Does ItI'd Know You AnywhereIf I Fall, If I DieIf You StayImagine Me GoneImposter for HireIn ZanesvilleInfinite JestIngloriousInnocentInnocent WorldInnocentsInspired SleepInvisibleIronshoreIs This What Other Women Feel Too?It Takes OneIt's Love We Don't UnderstandIt's Not Me, It's YouJacob Have I LovedJimmy CorriganJohn Dies at the EndJournal d'une femme adultŤreJust LifeKhalifahKick the Animal OutKicking the SkyKim: Empty InsideKisscutKissing DoorknobsKissing in AmericaKnockout MouseLambLast Chance SaloonLast NightLaura Numeroff's 10-Step Guide to Living with Your MonsterLawnboyLayoverLeft NeglectedLeisureLeo the Lightning BugLeslie's JournalLet Me Be Frank With YouLies My Girlfriend Told MeLife After LifeLife ClassLife Is a Strange PlaceLife of PiLike the Red PandaLike You'd Understand, AnywayLikely to DieLisa, Bright and DarkLisey's StoryListen to the SilenceLithium for MedeaLittle Black LiesLittle ChildrenLittle LitLittle ScarletLiíl SantaLonerLord of the FliesLosing JuliaLostLost GirlLost in the ForestLost Memory of SkinLove and Shame and LoveLove in the AsylumLove Songs for the Shy and CynicalLovely Green EyesLowboyLucy Sullivan Is Getting MarriedMagnificenceMaking ScenesMaliceMan and BoyMan in the WoodsManstealing for Fat GirlsMary, MaryMercy StreetMerry Christmas, Alex CrossMiddlesexMischlingMisfortuneMissing PresumedMoby DickMomma and the Meaning of LifeMonsterMonths and SeasonsMr. CommitmentMrs. DallowayMunich AirportMurder BookMurder in ByzantiumMurder in the InnMusic for TorchingMy AbandonmentMy Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me UpMy Life with CorpsesMy Name Is RedMy Sister's KeeperMystery Time StoriesNasty, Short and BrutalNecessary NoiseNelson Mandela's Favorite African FolktalesNemesisNeuroticaNever Fade AwayNever Let Me GoNew Australian StoriesNight FilmNina: AdolescenceNone of the AboveNorth of BeautifulNothing RightNovel About My WifeObjects of My AffectionObservatory MansionsOdd HoursOddsOld SchoolOn Chesil BeachOn the CouchOnce You Go BackOne Flew Over The Cuckoo's NestOne Good TurnOne More WednesdayOne Pill Makes You SmallerOptic Nerve #11Our Souls at NightOver Tumbled GravesPaint It BlackPanicParadiseParadise LodgeParanoiaParty GirlPeculiaPerfect LivesPharmakonPhobicPianoPictures of YouPilgrim at Tinker CreekPlaying with FirePlea of InsanityPopCoPoppy ShakespearePower SplitPreaching to the CorpsePrepPresumed InnocentProzac HighwayPumping Up NapoleonPureRachel's HolidayRacing the DevilRadiant CoolRaptors Red SnowRelentlessRemembrance of Things Past, Vol 1: CombrayRescueReturn to IsisReunion at Red Paint BayRevolting YouthRevolutionary RoadRight LivelihoodsRippleRoomRun DownRun for Your LifeSamaritanSand DollarSaturdaySaturday's ChildSay You Are My SisterSay You're One of ThemSay You're SorrySaying It Out LoudSchopenhauer's TelescopeSeason to TasteSecond LifeSee How SmallSeed of the Dogwood TreeSerious GirlsSexyShades of BlueShadow BabyShamelessShatteredShooterShort PeopleShutter IslandShy GirlSigned, Mata HariSilencedSilent CruiseSince You AskSister CrazySister MischiefSisterlandSkin DeepSleeping BeautySleepwalkSlip of the KnifeSmackSmall Avalanches and Other StoriesSmutSnowSo Brave, Young and HandsomeSome Thing BlackSometimes It's New YorkSong for EloiseSongs for the MissingSongs Without WordsSounds from the Bell JarSourlandSpeakSpeaking With the AngelSpeed ShrinkingSquirrel Seeks ChipmunkSshhhh!Stealing TimeSteel BreezeStill AliceStill MissingStir-FryStoner & SpazStop PretendingStraight ManStrange FleshStrange Stories for Strange Kids Summer BlondeSunstrokeSupreme CourtshipSwimmerSwimming Sweet ArrowSwimming to ElbaSwimming with StrangersSworn to SilenceSylvia PlathTaking FlightTales of PsychotherapyTalking to AddisonTeaseTell the Truth, Shame the DevilTestimonyThat Old Cape MagicThe 101 Best Graphic NovelsThe 7 Deadly Sins SamplerThe Abortionist's DaughterThe Abstinence TeacherThe AccidentalThe AdultsThe AlienistThe Almost MoonThe Arctic IncidentThe Artist of DisappearanceThe Austere AcademyThe Average American MarriageThe AwakeningThe Babes in the WoodThe Bad BeginningThe Beach HouseThe Beast of CretaceaThe Beat Goes OnThe Bell JarThe Best AwfulThe Big GirlsThe Big KissThe Big LoveThe Bird HouseThe Bird WomanThe Birthday RiotsThe Bitch PosseThe Blue Moon Erotic Reader IIIThe Blue NotebookThe Boat RockerThe Book of JamaicaThe Book of JoeThe Book of LeedsThe Book of LiesThe Book of LiverpoolThe Book of the DeadThe BramblesThe Brass VerdictThe Brimstone JournalsThe Burden of ProofThe Cake HouseThe CallingThe Castle in the ForestThe Children ActThe Children of MenThe Christmas TrainThe Christmas WeddingThe ClosersThe Consciousness PlagueThe Conspiracy ClubThe CorrectionsThe CorrectionsThe Covery and ThenThe Cuckoo's CallingThe CureThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThe Dark HouseThe Dark RoomThe Darkest Evening of the YearThe Day I Ate Whatever I WantedThe Dead Fathers ClubThe Dead Fish MuseumThe Dead HourThe Dead of SummerThe Death of Bunny MunroThe DepositionThe Devotion of Suspect XThe Diary of a Teenage GirlThe Disobedience Of The Daughter Of The SunThe Diviner's TaleThe DivinersThe DollmakerThe Double BindThe Dream BearerThe Dressmaker of Khair KhanaThe Dubious Salvation of Jack V.The Dulcimer Boy The Dynamite RoomThe EcstaticThe Education of Mrs. BemisThe Elementary ParticlesThe End Of AliceThe End of EverythingThe End of Mr. YThe Erotic EdgeThe Eternity CubeThe Extinction of DesireThe Field of the DogsThe Fig EaterThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe Gingerbread GirlThe Girl in 6EThe Girl in the GardenThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's NestThe Girl Who Loved Tom GordonThe Girl Who Played with FireThe Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl Without a NameThe GirlsThe Good PsychologistThe Great Books Foundation Short Story OmnibusThe Green ParrotThe Grief of OthersThe Grim GrottoThe Guise of AnotherThe Gum ThiefThe Guy Not TakenThe Hearts of MenThe Heretic's DaughterThe HoursThe Housekeeper and the ProfessorThe Ice QueenThe Ice TwinsThe InseparablesThe InterestingsThe IntimatesThe Keeper of Lost CausesThe Kindness of StrangersThe Kings of LondonThe Language of SecretsThe Last ChildThe Last MileThe Last PhysicianThe Last PrecinctThe Lay of the LandThe Lincoln LawyerThe Little FriendThe Lost MotherThe Love HexagonThe Lovely BonesThe Lover's DictionaryThe Madonnas of Echo ParkThe Madwoman in the AtticThe Man from BeijingThe Man in My BasementThe Man of My DreamsThe Map of True PlacesThe Marriage PlotThe Master BedroomThe Memory Book The Memory Keeper's DaughterThe Mercy RoomThe Mermaids SingingThe Ministry of Special CasesThe MiracleThe Miserable MillThe Missing ProfessorThe Most Dangerous ThingThe MuralistThe Museum of InnocenceThe NarrowsThe New YorkersThe NewleywedsThe Night ListenerThe NixThe Notebook of Lost ThingsThe Obvious ChildThe One With the NewsThe Other Side of the StoryThe Outlaw AlbumThe Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeThe PastThe People of the VeilThe Philosopher's LoverThe Philosophical PractitionerThe Possession of Mr. CaveThe Pregnant WidowThe Promise of a LieThe Promised LandThe PyramidThe ReaderThe Red HouseThe Red RoomThe Red ThreadThe ReporterThe Reptile RoomThe Resurrection StoneThe ReturnThe Right MistakeThe RoadThe Rule of FourThe Same Stuff as StarsThe Savage GirlThe ScarecrowThe Schopenhauer CureThe Second GirlThe SecretThe Secret Life of BeesThe Secret of Lost ThingsThe Secret ScriptureThe Secret SpeechThe Secret Wisdom of the EarthThe Shock of the FallThe Shutter of SnowThe Silence RoomThe SisterThe Sisterhood of the Traveling PantsThe Sky ChangesThe SnowmanThe SongwriterThe Sorrows of an AmericanThe Sound of Broken GlassThe Speed AbaterThe Speed of DarkThe Spinoza ProblemThe Stethoscope CureThe Stone GodsThe Story HourThe Story of Beautiful GirlThe Sudden Arrival of ViolenceThe Sweet Relief of Missing ChildrenThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the PieThe SyndromeThe Tenth CircleThe Tenth JusticeThe Third AngelThe Time Traveler's WifeThe Torn SkirtThe TouristThe Trick Is to Keep BreathingThe Trouble with Goats and SheepThe Troubled ManThe Undertaker's WifeThe Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector ChopraThe Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia MossThe UnnamedThe UnquietThe Unseen WorldThe Usual MistakesThe Vanishing Act of Esme LennoxThe Virgin BlueThe Virgin CureThe Water ChildrenThe WaveThe Weed That Strings the Hangman's BagThe Whole TruthThe Wide WindowThe Wild Assís SkinThe Woman and the ApeThe Woman UpstairsThe Wrong Side of GoodbyeThe Year of the FloodThe Year That FollowsTherapyThere Are No EldersThings You Should KnowThinks...Third Class SuperheroThirty NothingThis Beautiful LifeThis Body of DeathThose GirlsThose Who Wish Me DeadThumbsuckerTimothy Tunny Swallowed a BunnyTina's MouthTiny DeathsTisToby's RoomTony & SusanToo Much HappinessTooth and NailTouchTouching Spirit BearTouchy SubjectsTrailer GirlTransparencyTraumaTreacherous LoveTrespassTriburbiaTucker PeakTuringTwentieth Century EightballTwinmakerTwo Can PlayTwo Little Girls in BlueUnaccustomed EarthUnder the DamUnder the HarrowUnder the InfluenceUnfitUnholy StoriesUniversal HarvesterUnkemptUnlessUp in FlamesUp in the AirUpstateValenciaVenus DriveVeronika Decides to DieVery ValentineViolet & ClaireVisits from The Drowned GirlVoid MoonWaiting for SunriseWakeWastelandWatching the DarkWe Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWelding with ChildrenWell-Remembered DaysWemberly WorriedWhat Became of UsWhat It Means to Love YouWhat the Birds SeeWhat Waiting Really MeansWhat Was She Thinking? Notes on a ScandalWhat We Don't Know About ChildrenWhat's So Terrible About Swallowing an Apple Seed?When We Were AnimalsWhen We Were OrphansWhere We LivedWhite HotWhy Did I EverWidowWild AwakeWild ChildWill@epicqwest.comWillful CreaturesWitWithout TessWolf in White VanWomen's Murder Club Box SetYou or Someone Like YouYou Should Have KnownYou Will Know MeYour Body is ChangingYour Heart Belongs to MeZapZap
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.
Comment on this review