Book Review of "Almost Moon" by Alice Sebold. Review available on Amazon.Com
Review of Almost Moon by Alice Sebold, February, 2010
My thanks to Nicki for this intriguing book selection ! While I don't think I would have selected Almost Moon on my own, I revel in this opportunity to travel beyond the boundaries of my own book choices. I liked the book. I found Almost Moon solemn, quirky, intriguing, and well written. Now that I've finished reading it, I think it is odd that the publisher decided to market the book as a "thriller."
While murder is at the core of the story, it seems to me the central character's flash-backs are the real "story". They flesh out Helen's childhood and the pivotal events in her life leading up to the death of her mother to help us come to terms with her relationships and family history. Very quickly, the book moves from murder to slow motion mayhem. Almost Moon is far less a mystery story than a complex portrait of a middle-age woman struggling with how to survive killing her mother in ways that we find real and compelling against the backdrop of a family history fraught with self destruction.
One of Helen's most touching flash-backs involves a ''secret trip'' she took with her father to visit a condemned house and a ghost town that was once his family's beloved home. Helen discovers life-size wooden cut-outs in the attic her father has crafted to fill the gaps left by the house's former inhabitants. She discovers that her father has made many trips over the years to stay in this house without telling his wife or children. Helen's father was not only a far more intriguing character than the day-to-day relationship he develops with his family reveals, his distorted view of the world is hidden from his family in ways that his wife's is not. He is an intensely private man who eventually takes his life without warning or adequate explanation.
Having ventured this far into the book, I decided to google Alice Sebold to learn more about her. I found that she was brutally raped in college. This experience, along with her strained relationship with her mother, have been rehashed in different ways in each of the three books Sebold has written. One of the book's reviewers described Sebold's matter-of-fact handling of the murder of Helen's mother this way: "the explosive event and Helen's grief is related so calmly and matter-of- fact. that the surface of the writing was not broken." I'm not sure I agree, though I suspect most of us who have read this book have struggled with and appreciate that Sebold found a way to deal with brutal personal experiences by adopting a journalist's more objective reporting of the events.
It was fun to discover that Almost Moon is set in Phoenixville, Pa, not far from where I once lived. A number of small towns in this part of Pennsylvania cropped up around family-run paper mills and foundries in the 18th and 19th centuries. Phoenixville Iron Works was a major producer of cannons for the Union Army during the Civil War. The Iron Works has long since gone out of business. What remains is a gentrified town center surrounded by quiet residential neighborhoods, and large old farms situated inharmoniously alongside new housing developments.
Sebold doesn't miss an opportunity to point out Phoenixville's middle-class "blandness." Which reminds me, I'm not certain that Helen's character and performance are entirely the result of her dysfunctional life and her painful relationship with her mother. The inhabitants of this small town live quiet, sober lives. Many work at the same jobs they've held forever. While we can see a very real work ethic exists here, ambition is not particularly valued or important. When Sebold tells us that Helen was hopelessly trapped in her world of low expectations. I think she may have been (in-part) telling us that small town living was limiting for Helen who is, after all, a pretty interesting character and an odd match with her surroundings.
Looking back, I found the way Sebold brought the mother-daughter relationship to the fore impressive. She does this by giving varying levels of attention to the development of the characters in the book. Helen and her mother uniquely upstage all of the other characters--with the possible exception of Helen's neighbor who was given a small but pivotal role to play. Helen's family members, ex-husband, and lover form a Greek chorus in this (inevitable) tragedy. These individuals have a greater role to play in the wings-- in Helen's flashbacks-- than they do in the actual events that take place as the story unfolds. I don't think of them as having a significant impact on the story--especially when we think back on who and what mattered most to the success of this book. On the whole, I believe Sebold accomplished what she set out to do with two central characters and a story which relied on a rolling series of artfully crafted flash-backs for its life's blood.