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The Caretaker's Dilemma
The author of "The Lovely Bones" explores a matricide and the loveless years that led to it.

By Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, October 14, 2007

THE ALMOST MOON

By Alice Sebold

Little, Brown. 291 pp. $24.99

Alice Sebold makes us listen to women we don't want to listen to: a rape victim, a murdered teenager and, now, a daughter who's smothered her elderly mother to death. She attends to the kinds of people who, historically, have been doubted, ignored or shamed into silence. She can describe shocking acts of violence and long periods of recovery in prose that is at once deeply sympathetic and surprisingly maudlin-free. The Lovely Bones was phenomenally popular in 2002, enough to relaunch her previously published memoir, Lucky, onto the paperback bestseller list. That vast fan base essentially guarantees instant success for her new novel, The Almost Moon.

No one ever wanders into a book by Sebold wondering what it's about. None of that dilatory scene setting for her. It's as though she imagines her books posted on a crowded homepage competing for attention: Lucky begins: "In the tunnel where I was raped. . . . " The Lovely Bones risks delaying that punch for a single sentence: "My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered. . . ." And The Almost Moon opens with this whopper: "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." Yes, there's something suspiciously salacious about this technique, but in Sebold's defense I think it reflects her refusal to play these horrors for cheap suspense. She wants to get immediately beyond the violence and focus on what really interests her: how survivors deal with trauma.

Unfortunately, that approach works far less successfully in The Almost Moon, in which her attention has shifted, for the first time, from victim to perpetrator. The novel takes place in a single day and tells the story of Helen Knightly, a middle-aged woman who cares for her mother, a cancer survivor who's severely agoraphobic. "For more than twenty years, with greater or lesser diligence," she tells us, "I had been attending to her, rushing over when she called saying her heart would burst, or taking her on increasing rounds of doctors' visits."

In the opening scene, a distinctly unpleasant one, Helen goes over to her mother's house and finds the old woman has lost control of her mind and bowels. "She had not, as I may have momentarily hoped, died," Helen says. "I knew I was going to have to call the ambulance. I knew, as I had for some time, that my mother was heading out of this life, but I did not want her arriving at the hospital caked in [excrement]."

As her mother passes in and out of consciousness, Helen tries to move her to the bathroom, but she can't carry the 88-year-old woman upstairs. Using some towels as a sleigh, she drags her into the kitchen, then out to the porch, but it's futile, disgusting and depressing. "There is no excuse to give," Helen confesses. "I smashed these downy towels into my mother's face. Once begun, I did not stop."

This subject is tragically relevant to millions of people -- mostly women -- who find themselves waving goodbye to their adult children just in time to take in their declining parents. And continuing advances in the treatment of disease will surely swell the number of families forced to care for relatives who have outlived any semblance of an enjoyable life. Helen is acting out a paranoid nightmare for elderly parents and a forbidden fantasy for their burdened children.

But The Almost Moon lacks the sensitivity and depth to carry off its dramatic opening or explore the complex issues it raises. As a narrator, Helen is never sufficiently sympathetic to plead her own case nor insightful enough to explain it. The murder and Helen's bumbling efforts to dispose of the body strike weirdly discordant tones: "Arsenic and Old Lace" one minute, a geriatric snuff film the next. The intimacy of Helen's efforts to clean her dead mother sounds almost sacramental, but the scene is interrupted with sardonic little jokes and asides. All of this might make some creepy psychological sense in the hands of Joyce Carol Oates or Donna Tartt, but here we're left with a narrator who can't convey or even imply the magnitude of what she's doing.

Sebold has shown herself capable of these tonal inconsistencies before. The dreadful love scene toward the end of The Lovely Bones was a cringe-inducing blooper that ruined the novel for some readers. But the problems in The Almost Moon are far more pervasive. Poised over her mother in the basement, Helen says, "I had never thought of how one cut up a body, only of the freedom to be had postsevering. The grisly reality of the sawing and the butchering had never preoccupied me. It was the instant flash, the twitched nose of 'Bewitched,' the magic of going from having my mother to not having her that held me in its thrall." That cute reference to Elizabeth Montgomery reminds me of the scene in Native Son when Bigger Thomas stuffs Mary's body in the furnace and thinks about "Gilligan's Island." Hijinks ensue!

All this might have worked if we got some sense that Helen were slipping into psychosis or at least felt a little panic. Instead, she moves like a woman worried about overestimating her deductions on last year's taxes. The meandering story that develops over the next 24 hours is a mishmash of ludicrous plans for escape, laughably implausible trysts with her best friend's son, a "blond-god doofus," and predictably unhappy memories of life with Mommie Dearest. Several sections of The Almost Moon demonstrate that Sebold can still write beautiful, haunting scenes, but there are enough jarring missteps here to make anyone wonder why she sabotages herself. ¿

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.

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