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Well written but lacking
on 5 May 2009
An opening line that refers to killing one's mother does not presage a light-hearted feel good story, so if you're not interested in the why and wherefore of human behaviour this book is not for you. Even then, I defy anyone to actually enjoy reading it - interesting it may be, but enjoyable it is not.
The two chapters that follow the initial revelation and a short lead-in to the dastardly deed seem particularly morbid and depressing. The novel then becomes a series of flashbacks which go some way towards providing an explanation. Brought up in what sounds like a depressingly run down small American town amid an atmosphere of mental instability, deprived of natural affection, and subsequently feeling responsible for her mother, it is not surprising that Helen's own marriage failed and her relationship with her children was less than satisfactory. The problem is that I can't imagine anyone actually liking Helen, the main protagonist, and she doesn't become any more likeable as the story proceeds. Because I never warmed to her I had difficulty feeling sympathy for her, even though I could see how it was her past that shaped her present actions, rather than any innate evil in her character.
The book is generally well written although it occasionally loses pace. It's a thoughtful exploration of the effects of mental illness on those who have to cope with sufferers. And the ending is sufficiently ambiguous to leave a question mark over what might happen next. One of three obvious possibilities seems to be ruled out in the last couple of pages, which still leaves two plausible outcomes - to say more would spoil the ending for anyone still tempted, despite the reviews, to read the book. But....
While I like novels that explore the psychology of people's actions and reactions, there are others that tackle the subject more engagingly - The Other Side of You, by Salley Vickers, for example. The Almost Moon is certainly not a book I'll ever want to read again, or even to keep. That isn't just because it's a dark story - Helen Dunmore's A Spell of Winter is dark too, but I've read that three times, as much for the poetry of the writing as for the story itself. Alice Sebold's second novel just lacks sensitivity, which is a pity after the excellent reviews for The Lovely Bones. She's a talented writer so hopefully I'll be able to give more stars for her next effort.
If you haven't already read The Almost Moon I'm inclined to say, don't bother. There are plenty of more enjoyable though still thought provoking novels on the market.