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A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold


Part of Mother’s Day Week on Vulpes: a week of items on the themes of mothers and motherhood

For reasons that baffle me, The Almost Moon has had some terrible reviews:

“The book’s cover claims this is raw and powerful; in fact it is sickening. To go this dark, you need truly compelling characters, and Helen does not deliver: she is selfish and weak with no discernible centre,” Harriet Paterson complained in the Sunday Telegraph.

Carol Ann Duffy, also in the Telegraph, writes “Sadly, this new publication is a disappointment on every level.”

Perhaps it was just the high expectations after Alice Sebold’s multi-million selling The Lovely Bones. Now, don’t get me wrong, I thought The Lovely Bones was a very good novel (albeit with a slightly dubious body-snatching/losing virginity section in the middle) but The Almost Moon is a different sort of novel altogether. It’s darker, it’s set over a much shorter time frame and we’re dealing with Morally Ambiguous Issues.

The novel starts with the words “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily,” – not the obvious choice of book to include in our Mother’s Day themed week, you might think. But this book is about maternal/filial love, and it is about the hatred that can be part of that love.

Quick plot summary: our narrator, Helen, visits her 88-year-old mother, Clair, who suffers from dementia. Clair soils herself and Helen is once again faced with cleaning up the crap. In an intense moment, very painful to read, Helen smothers her mother. She then cuts off her mother’s clothes, cleans her naked body, moves her to the cellar and cuts off her mother’s plait, which she takes with her. Soon afterwards Helen has sex with her friend’s son.

It is a novel about mental illness in various forms, and it is almost too sad to bear at times. But it is compelling. I couldn’t stop reading it, no matter how much pain and shit was outlined on the page. The Almost Moon looks some unpleasant actions, feelings and motivations square in the face, and it does not, should not, apologise for that.

Some readers seemed to have a problem with the protagonist, Helen – they found her unlikeable, selfish, unkind. For me she was terrifically written: realistic, tough, soft, flawed, unnerving, trying to do her best. But yes, we are privy to her troubled and troubling thoughts:

“No, Mother, no” I said, realizing as I did so that it was more useless than talking to a dog. A dog cocked her head. A dog gave you a soulful look. My mother was a passed-out bag of bones who reeked of shit.

Helen’s life has clearly not been easy and ‘when all is said and done’, her mother is a terrifying, soul-destroying burden:

She looked up at me and smiled.

“Bitch,” she said.

The thing about dementia is that sometimes you feel like the afflicted person has a trip wire to the truth, as if they can see beneath the skin you hide in.

“Mother, it’s Helen,” I said.

“I know who you are!” she barked at me.

Several reviewers seemed to think that Alice Sebold was breaking taboos for the sake of it, purely to shock, to disgust. I would argue that if they looked behind their shock and disgust, they would find some truth. The truth that people sometimes do come to loathe mentally ill relatives, they do sometimes fantasise about killing them, and perhaps when faced with shit both literal and metaphorical, some of them murder. Is it wrong to write these stories? Is it wrong to try to understand them? Would it have been acceptable if our narrator, Helen, was a nicer woman? More generous? More selfless? If she regretted what she did? Would it be acceptable to write this story if the author was a man? Or if the characters were father and son? Is this a parent/child taboo? Or a daughter taboo?

As I read the reviews I kept thinking ‘Why can’t female authors write about these troubled non-cookie-cutter relationships between mothers and daughters? Why shouldn’t Sebold write about a woman who kills her mother and is relieved to have done so? Why should it all be about aspiration? About lovely women leading middle-class lives?’

As I said in my own Vulpes interview ‘Bring on the difficult women!’ and this is what Sebold does. We have the narrator, Helen, and her mother, Clair. Both troubled, both makers of numerous mistakes, both full of regret, both full of love and anger. For me though, this novel is just as much a look at euthanasia, as an exploration of matricide, in a world in which it is fine to shoot a horse with a broken leg, but where people are left to suffer.

For Dove Grey Reader’s review of The Almost Moon on the Picador blog, click here

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold. Picador. 291 pages. Hardback. £16.99 ISBN 978-0-330-45132-1

21 comments on “The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

  1. rosyb
    March 8, 2008

    Goodness Lisa. What an incredible rabble-rousing review. I have no idea about this book or what I would think of it and yet found myself cheering you on because this seems to cover so much more than a single book.

    “The truth that people sometimes do come to loathe mentally ill relatives, they do sometimes fantasise about killing them, and perhaps when faced with shit both literal and metaphorical, some of them murder. Is it wrong to write these stories? Is it wrong to try to understand them? Would it have been acceptable if our narrator, Helen, was a nicer woman? More generous? More selfless? If she regretted what she did? Would it be acceptable to write this story if the author was a man? Or if the characters were father and son? Is this a parent/child taboo? Or a daughter taboo?”

    Of course, maybe this is an issue close to your heart as your own “Prince Rupert’s Teardrop” had a troublesome relationship between a nonegenarian mother and a sixty something daughter. I found that relationship compelling also. I think you are right – the truth is that many elderly people are abused whether by relatives or in institutions. And sometimes that abuse is purely nasty and taking advantage and sometimes it is just the result of pure frustration, of the fact that one person has to take too much of the burden, of the fact that people can be left caring for those whose personalities might have changed and who might be senile which often also causes people to become violent themselves.

    Sorry. Rambling. And I am no expert. But this seemed a very brave subject for a book to deal with and a brave review also I might add.

  2. sequinonsea
    March 8, 2008

    Yes, I would say this is a very brave book to have written.

    It reminded me of those who read Prince Rupert’s Teardrop as a story about a woman (Mary) who kills her own mother and invents a fantasy serial killer to cover for it in her mind – if you go along with that version of PRT then The Almost Moon would be pretty close to how Mary would have acted… excepting the part where The Almost Moon‘s narrator sleeps with her friend’s son. Which brings me to that part of the novel: I wonder how much of the vitriol aimed at Helen is because of that incident. Because Helen has sex so soon after her mother’s death, so soon after killing her mother. And with a younger man too (heaven forbid) and with the son of her friend, which is practically incest, surely 😉

    I should also point out that many readers see Helen as mentally ill, but you’ll have to read it to make up your own mind.

    I thought The Almost Moon was a stunning and exceptionally well-written novel. One of those books you don’t easily forget.

  3. rosyb
    March 8, 2008

    Interesting. Of course they say that people often look to sleep with people as a reaction to death don’t they?

    Yet another interpretation of PRT! I must say, that particular one never occurred to me. 😉

  4. litlove
    March 8, 2008

    What an excellent review. I think you are so right to point out the disparity between a liberal culture and the rigid constraints women are still locked within to express nothing but care and nurturing emotions. I also think it is a crime to romanticise the role of the caregiver for the elderly, disabled, whatever. It’s one of the most brutally destructive and thankless roles our society offers. Now I want to read the book, but having said that, I think I’ll have to pick my moment so as not to end up feeling too bleak.

  5. Mhairi
    March 8, 2008

    Yes, there’s nothing romantic about caring for someone with dementia … and most carers wouldn’t care to have some of their innermost thoughts laid open to scrutiny. Perhaps the nay-saying critics just didn’t like the accuracy of the portrayal, because it was too close to home.

    Either which, superb review, Lisa.

  6. Sam
    March 8, 2008

    Great review, Lisa.

    I’ve not read the book, and I don’t think I will because I had such a bad reaction to her first novel, but as you say we’re privy to her private thoughts, I was wondering if you felt those thoughts and the portrayal of Helen as someone who would commit matricide, felt psychologically believable (rather than accurate, ‘cos hopefully none of us knows what it might feel like to be in Helen’s situation)?

    I only ask because most of the negative reviews I saw seemed to stem from an idea that the character wasn’t realised well enough, which would be understandable given the extremity of her situation and the difficulty of imagining that fully.

    I had a similar reaction to Boy A, about one of the killers in a James Bulger type murder. Almost at every turn I thought, ‘Cop out.’ Either the protagonist was simply influenced by an older boy (in which case I just wanted to know more about the other boy) or there was some explanation hidden in family history. It was all too rational.

    I think sometimes the biggest problem a writer faces when trying to enter the minds of such extreme characters as Boy A, or Helen from what you’ve said, is trying to entertain the idea of the irrational and stretching your brain to the level when the irrational becomes very rational, because that’s where, it seems to me, these extreme characters live. Or that would at least be one very rich vein to explore.

    And thanks for including citations – they really helped me. So na na ner na na.

  7. sequinonsea
    March 8, 2008

    “Of course they say that people often look to sleep with people as a reaction to death don’t they?” Rosy, yes, and I saw Helen’s fling with her friend’s son as part of her grief.

    Thanks, Litlove, and I strongly agree with this: “I also think it is a crime to romanticise the role of the caregiver for the elderly, disabled, whatever.”

    Mhairi, this: “Perhaps the nay-saying critics just didn’t like the accuracy of the portrayal, because it was too close to home,” seems likely to me. There’s no romanticising, no glamorising, no pure-of-heart saintly women in this book.

    Sam, nice to have you back. Yes, I do think Helen is psychologically believable. Helen is irrational and thinks these very dark thoughts, but to me it was clear that she loved her mother, but that she couldn’t take any more. I also think Helen saw a kindness in smothering her mother: a kindness to her mother and to herself. I know that’s not a very palatable thought, but I don’t think it should be censored from novels on the grounds that it’s ‘sickening’. And as Mhairi says: “most carers wouldn’t care to have some of their innermost thoughts laid open to scrutiny.”

    In The Almost Moon we’re shown snippets of Helen and Clair’s history, and that is not sugar-coated either. But yes, Helen and Clair felt very realistic to me, Sam. Maybe get it from the library 🙂 because it’s really nothing like The Lovely Bones – a fact that evidently disappointed many Amazon reviewers.

    The novel ends without telling us what was in store for Helen, and I suppose it’s up to the reader to decide whether Helen ends up in jail, a psychiatric ward or goes free.

  8. Anne Brooke
    March 8, 2008

    This book has been on my must-read list (I loved that first line – I have such a hate/blood ties relationship with my own mother, who’s still living – honest!!) for a while and is now rising rapidly to the top as a result of this review. Many thanks.

    Heck, I love difficult women – bring ’em on!!


  9. Sam
    March 9, 2008

    Lisa, sorry for keeping this conversation up but I really like learning about characters who commit extreme actions (particularly as I’ll probably learn more from your take on the book than I would from reading it – got a feeling I’d end up throwing it across the room by page four).

    I suppose I’d say that lots of people find themselves in a state where they ‘couldn’t take it anymore’ but few go on to kill anyone, let alone their parent. The key for me is to know what was it about Helen’s psychology that led her to do this, what makes her different to all the other care-givers who can’t take it any more but carry on caring regardless? Judging by reviews (including your own!) and her first novel I don’t think Sebold has the basic (Dostoevkian) chops to go there (who does, I suppose?)

    Absolutely agree that nothing should be censored from novels on the grounds that it’s sickening. But I think when the Telegraph reviewer (in a very good review, I thought) called the novel sickening she was saying that she thought it was gratuitous, that the character hadn’t earned – or the writer hadn’t shown the character earning – her actions: that it was only a shock tactic. As the reviewer says:

    The book posits a life ruined by a crazy mother as an explanation, but the narrative force that would give the murder psychological inevitability is lacking.

    I think that was common to all the reviews I read on this book: lack of psychological inevitability – the difference between difficult empathy with a difficult character, and a quickly-tedious shock tactic. I definitely didn’t get a sense that the negative reviews were down to gender-based double-standards (but I realise that, not having a uterus, I’m in no position to comment on that).

    Back? Didn’t realise I’d gone.

  10. sequinonsea
    March 9, 2008

    Well, Sam, I think you must read the book now, then we can argue it out forever! 🙂

    And, you know, I think people do crazy things all the time – it’s not so much a case of having ticked this psychological box, and checking that particular childhood trauma. People who’ve committed no crimes in their lives can suddenly do terrible things. I think that the problem is that Helen is not a fictional cliche – she is quite different from your ‘average fictional murderess’. And yes, I think this is quite an unflinching look at something painful, but no it doesn’t feel gratuitous. Not to me, at least.

    And perhaps the psychology you expect also depends on whether you see Helen’s actions as murder or euthanasia – if you allow that there is some kindness in what she does, then perhaps your definition of what constitutes ‘believable psychology’ for Helen would be different. Want me to send you my copy to borrow? Email me if you do. Go on! Hell, even if you throw it across the room at page four, at least you’ll have tried…

    P.S Sam – would you recommend Boy A? I see it won the Spread the Word award and am tempted…

    Anne, bring em on! It’s so nice to have commenters by the way, so thank you. And Anne, I’m saving up for your new book!

  11. Sam
    March 9, 2008

    You’re right, people can just flip without prior warning. I suppose as a reader I’d find that a bit unfulfilling. But that’s my problem as a insufficiently imaginative reader, I guess! And neither had I thought of killing out of a mixture of hatred and kindness – hatred for what her mother was turning her into it, kindness for wishing to end her mother’s pain. That would be truly, truly fascinating (psychologically :))

    Thanks for the offer, but I’ still think I’m going to pass on this one. If only to save any further dents in my wall.

    I think you might like Boy A; it does have a good human drama in there somewhere, and there is an attempt at creating empathy for the child killer, or at least understanding. I just found it all a bit convenient and psychologically bloodless.

    I would, however, recommend without any reservations whatsoever Joshua Ferris’ hilarious and likeable and well-written and well-observed, Then We Came To The End. Nothing at all to do with characters commiting extreme actions, but it was a blast and made the commute to work just whistle by.

  12. Anne Brooke
    March 9, 2008

    Ooh, thanks, Lisa. I’d certainly be interested to see what you thought about Kate in “Thorn in the Flesh” – I struggled so much with that woman!! Dammit.

    Ooh, and “Boy A” – another on my list. I can see Easter will be difficult on the purse for sure!



  13. Emily
    March 10, 2008

    Can’t stop thinking about this review / this book (which I haven’t read) – but my thoughts are far too jumbled still, so I just wanted to say well done on a very thought-provoking review, Lisa, and I might get back to you on this if I’m brave enough to read the book.



  14. sequinonsea
    March 10, 2008

    Thanks Emily!

    And Sam!

    And Anne, I cannot wait to meet Kate 🙂

  15. Jackie
    March 11, 2008

    Whoah! What a powerfully thoughtful review! Excellent!

  16. Jackie
    March 11, 2008

    I’d also like to add that the premise of this book would probably be completely understandable to anyone who has taken care of a mentally ill elderly relative. It doesn’t seem as if Helen would be “an extreme character” at all in that case. People who are dismissing it are those who haven’t an inkling of the reality of that situation.

  17. Emily
    March 11, 2008

    That’s the tricky point though, isn’t it, which Sam was talking about further up – for people who have been in, or near, that situation, it’s very easy to imagine – but then that’s making it easy for the author, isn’t it? If we’re already ‘there’. It’s up to the author to take everyone else there, too, and it sounds as if some of the reviews are saying that the book / the main character doesn’t do that. Whereas Lisa finds it very successful. Hmm, I’m really going to have to read it…

  18. Sam
    March 11, 2008

    But that’s my point, Jackie. I agree that Helen’s actions probably felt very rational and inevitable to her, but I don’t think it’s really enough for the author to simply use that as a starting point. This is fiction, after all: lifelike but not quite life. Which is why, though we’ll always be instantly moved when we learn someone in real life has lost a child, we’ve grown to be a bit more circumspect when told that about a character on page one of a novel. People can flip in real life, but, in the main, I think characters have to be seen to be earning their despair. I don’t think that’s being dismissive of the character. I actually think that’s the basis of all tragedy.

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  20. Leena
    March 14, 2008

    Brilliant review, Lisa!

    Interesting, too, what Sam says about the character having to earn her actions… I suppose there’s a third way to look at it too, though – it might be an interesting (albeit disturbing) ‘what if?’ scenario precisely because the character isn’t ‘mad’ or ‘plausibly extreme’ enough. She may be simply living out something many ordinary people have thought; a suppressed wish or instinct, as it were. Like standing on a cliff and simply wondering what would happen if you pushed your friend over the edge – for no reason at all. (Obviously, in this case the matricide isn’t just a whim ‘for no reason at all’, but you get my drift, I hope.) The vast majority of people would never do such a thing, but in a fictional context it’s surely legitimate to explore what would happen if they did…?

    To some it will be a gratuitous shock tactic, to some others it will doubtless be cathartic… as Jackie said, it’s probably bound to be more interesting to people who have some experience of mentally ill relatives. But I do think fiction can have an equally powerful effect by alienating and puzzling the reader and refusing to explain things. That would depend on where exactly the emphasis lies, surely? (And not having read the book yet, I’m not really qualified to comment on that!)

  21. thewritingrunner
    September 18, 2008

    Very nice review. I was surprised by the bad reviews, too. In fact, on my blog today I mention that I think they could actually have been “good” for the book in the sense that at least those reviews got people talking about the book! Readers tend to want to decide on their own if a book is good or not. 🙂

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This entry was posted on March 8, 2008 by in Entries by Lisa, Fiction: literary and tagged , , .



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