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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