Human beings have a virtually limitless capacity to indulge in wishful thinking. Certainly, it was a massive wave of wishfulness utterly divorced from earthbound reality that propelled Alice Sebold to the top of the bestseller list with her huge critical and commercial success, The Lovely Bones. The story of a 14-year-old girl who was raped and murdered, and who then sagely narrated her sad story from heaven, this was no mere genre fantasy, but rather an ostensibly literary narrative in which there not only was a heaven with “cakes and pillows and colors galore” and “the soft down of new leaves”, but a heaven from which a young girl, hardly affected at all by her brutal violation and still entirely sentient (rendering virtually absurd the concept of death itself), could placidly observe life on earth, and love, and forgive.
One can understand why this candy-coated narrative found such a ready audience among families who themselves had lost a loved one, taking as it did the Christian concept of an afterlife and making it exponentially more simplistic and appealing. And one can even accept that Sebold — who was herself raped and very nearly killed when she was a young woman — wrote the book in the deepest transports of sincerity, and never for a moment imagined that she was in any sense pandering to an audience of the bereaved. It was a beautiful and thoughtful book that also managed to be incredibly dishonest about its emotions and, in this dishonesty, very nearly repellent.
Indeed, “repellent” is precisely the word that first comes to mind upon reading Sebold’s new novel, The Almost Moon. In the opening chapter, a middle-aged woman, an artist’s model by profession, murders her elderly mother, an agoraphobic and an abusive borderline personality now in the farthest reaches of dementia, when she loses control of her bowels. Over the next few hours, the daughter, the novel’s narrator, scrubs her mother’s body, places it in a freezer, and then alternately runs away from and comes to terms with her crime.
This, it is safe to say, is not the most surefire formula ever devised for following up a big bestseller with an even bigger one.
Indeed, as the story unfolds, the grim mood never lifts. As the daughter encounters her sympathetic former husband, her friends, and her mother’s neighbors, she also grapples with disturbing memories of her mother as a younger woman, mentally fractured long before dementia stole her mind away, and of her father, who was also mentally ill, and who came to an unreservedly awful end.
Paradoxically, however, even as the story grows darker, the feeling of repulsion gradually begins to dissipate, and is replaced, first, with a grudging respect for Sebold’s skill as a storyteller, and, ultimately, with a sense of satisfaction, as much emotional as literary, that this is a writer who is capable of dealing with a painful subject in the most moving and honest manner possible. As the daughter’s impulsive decision to murder her mother is explained, one begins gradually to respect her as well as her creator; there were abundant reasons — though not, it is made clear, excuses or rationalizations — for suffocating her mother, none of them having anything to do with her loss of bowel control. Ultimately, it is hard not to care about the narrator’s fate, or to forget the ordeal she herself endured long before her crime.
Sebold is a highly capable writer, and this book is never anything less than absorbing as she examines the way that mental illness spreads its indelible stain through families and across generations. By the time the story is over, it seems almost as if this novel was written as Sebold’s penance for The Lovely Bones’ artificiality or, perhaps, for its very success. Of course, it is presumptuous indeed to try to intuit what motivates a writer to write as she does, but it’s hard to think otherwise when one encounters passages in The Almost Moon such as, “I knew where my mother was. She was not in the heavenly skies but in her basement, stone-cold dead.”
On the basis of its disturbing first chapter alone, The Almost Moon runs the distinct risk of proving vastly less popular in the marketplace than its predecessor. There’s nothing wrong with popular success, needless to say, but if Sebold is unable to achieve it with this novel, she at least must be gratified to know that she has achieved something vastly more resonant and real than the fairy tale that made her name.