viernes, 8 de julio de 2011

A review of The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

Helen Knightly takes her clothes off for a living. It’s not what you think: she’s a respectable mother of two. She is Knightly by name, but it is her day job that sees her modelling in the nude for art college life classes. Her mother, Clair, used to model underwear. It must run in the family. Her husband, Jake, is – or was, perhaps – an artist. They met when she was naked and carried on in the same vein. Now they are divorced, if not exactly estranged. He lives out West in Santa Barbara. He has another relationship, with a woman his daughter’s age. Helen tries to mimic. Their daughters are grown up. Helen even has a grandchild.

Helen also, and crucially, still has Clair, the mother who now needs almost total care. One fraught day of many, while Helen and her mother exchange superficially meaningless conversation barbed with a mixture of half-truth, nonsense, accusation and innuendo, the octogenarian Clair fouls herself. She seems not a little proud of her odorous product. It falls to Helen to clean up her helpless and apparently resentful mother. And she snaps. Almost involuntarily a pillow comes to hand and Helen uses it to smother. It’s a strange word, smother, what daughters do to mothers.

Helen now has a problem. Thus The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold becomes a first person account of how she copes with and reflects on her act. There is hatred, compassion, opportunism, in fact more motives beneath the surface than you could count. But on the face of things, there is no single identifiable explanation, other than frustration. Jake is summoned to lend a helping hand, but his presence just seems to bring memories of life’s unhappiness and disappointment to the fore.

Helen tries to relieve her emotional stress via sex, for the first time in a parked car, seducing a friend’s son, apparently for the hell of it, but with Helen there’s always at least a hint of motive. She raises her exploit later when it can be used to compete. She recalls her own childhood, her marriage, her children, her parents, life’s fulfilling moments, its bad times, its threats.

The Almost Moon reminds me of the work of Anne Tyler, where ostensibly ordinary households and families have their skin peeled back to reveal often surprising, sometimes dark innards. The Almost Moon is similar in its forensic detail of family life. But Alice Seybold’s style is always much more threatening, much closer to nightmare tinged with neurosis.

The development of the plot is well handled, with Helen’s thoughts never linear, always tending to juxtapose interpreted past, experienced present and imagined future in most instants of her self-analysis. She is a complex person and makes some surprising, even shocking confessions.

The family – every family – is at the bottom of The Almost Moon. Families are full of disparate individuals brought together by an accident of birthright. No wonder they often don’t get on. But then birthright is also a bond, but a bond that sometimes can suffocate.

Helen’s first person narrative is powerful. In the circumstances the reader begins to wonder how she might be telling such a story, given the detail it unfolds. We get to know the intricacies of her relations with her husband, lover, mother, father, children and even neighbours. In the circumstances, she seems to have plenty of time. In the end, perhaps the reader is still presented with this same dilemma, but there are suddenly several possible solutions. Don’t expect to be told what to think, and don’t, in The Almost Moon, expect to like the characters, especially Helen Knightly. She certainly would not expect it of you.

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