Thursday 25 October 2012

The Almost Moon

Having read both 'Lucky' and 'The Lovely Bones' I have had 'The Almost Moon' on the TBR list for quite some time now. Alice Sebold really does not shy away from writing about the difficult parts of life, so to say that you 'like' her writing seems the wrong word. Where Lovely Bones is about a family torn apart Almost Moon is more about a woman far too bound up and unable to break away.

So Helen kills her mother; that's not a spoiler, by the way. The story tells us why. And what happened afterwards. I liked this quote from near the end, it kind of sums up the book:

"I saw the teapot on the stove and decided I would make a cup of tea. A stalling tactic, no doubt, but what was and wasn't reasonable had left me. Everything was reasonable if killing your mother was." (p.282)

Although there are obviously deep seated problems already the family is ostracised by their community after a strange incident where Helen's mother fails to help a young boy who is a victim of a hit-and-run. As a result they become very insular and the mother's agoraphobia and self-obsession becomes more extreme. Helen does manage to create a life for herself, marrying and having daughters, but then after her father's death returns to the family enclave to care for her ailing mother. There was nothing special about the day she kills her mother, no build up or advance planning, it almost happens by accident. As if started on a trail of self-destruction she then proceeds to have sex with her best friend's son and then call her ex-husband for help. Even more bizarrely, when the police begin to look more closely, she runs away, but it is just an avoidance tactic, as part of her brain seems to continue to think sensibly and she knows that eventually she will have to face the music. 
It is the story of a mother/daughter relationship, one that is very complex, the daughter needing things and not having them, the mother becoming reliant on the daughter but unable to acknowledge her. I think it is the strength of the book that at no time did I not sympathise with Helen, even when she was at her most bizarre and irrational I understood what she felt and why it seemed logical to behave as she does. As an examination of a relationship the book is very astute, as is her understanding of how a child takes on responsibility for things when their parents let them down. There are only really snippets of the past within the story, but they are enough to give us a picture of her growing up and how her relationship with her parents developed. Firstly her mother:

"When I had tried once to explain what was wrong with my mother, it felt hopeless.
'She doesn't do much,' I'd said.
'It may seem like that to you, Helen,' Miss Taft had said. She was my second-grade teacher, and my class was her first.
'She doesn't drive,' I tried.
'Not everyone does.'
'My father does. Mr Forrest does.'
'That's two,' she said, and held up two fingers. She smiled as me, as if supplying me with whole numbers would solve everything.
'She used to go for walks,' I said, 'but she doesn't do that anymore.'
'Raising a child takes all of one's energy,' Miss Taft said.
I stared past her to the map of the world that hung over the blackboard. I knew when to shut up. My mother's problem was my fault." (p. 94-5)

and her father:

" 'What hospital?' I asked.
My father looked at me, considering.
'Why don't we go on our picnic and I'll tell you about it.'
For the remainder of that afternoon, my father showed me the still-visible parts of the town where he'd grown up. We had a picnic of egg-salad sandwiches with cucumber, and chocolate chip cookies he'd made himself. There was a thermos of milk for me, and he drank two Coca-Colas end to end and burped as loud as I'd ever heard anyone. I laughed so hard I ended up coughing, like a bark, over and over again.
'Why don't we wait for the darkness here,' he said.
It was a gift, and I did not have the heart to ask again about the hospital. Part of me was happy with the fib. It made him seem normal, even if it was just pretend. Where is your father? In Ohio, visiting friends and family. I decided that day that I would never blame my father for anything - his absence, his weakness, or his lies." (p.202-3)

It is almost the mere fact of how ordinary it all seems that makes this book interesting. It is not a case for euthanasia or anything like that, though the woman is incapacitated and unhappy. It is not as if Helen has some overwhelming hatred for her mother. It is more about a basic human need for love and affirmation and how it's denial crushes something subtle in a person. 

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