Alice Sebold's new novel, The Almost Moon, begins with Helen Knightly suffocating her elderly mother. The rest of the novel tries to explain why she did it, taking readers through the next 24 hours and into Helen's past.
The Almost Moon grips the reader with its premise and plot, but Sebold's characterization is feeble. The novel makes the reader squirm, but it doesn't horrify because it fails to bring the reader deep into Helen's mind.
Helen always daydreamed of cutting her mother up into pieces and mailing the pieces "to parts unknown," but the novel never fully explains why she dreams this. Readers learn that Helen's mentally ill mother was demanding and unjust, but also vulnerable. After Helen's father killed himself, Helen took from him "the burden" of her mother's care, and Helen says when she killed her mother, "It just seemed a very natural thing to do." But many people have difficult mothers. Why was it so natural for Helen to kill hers?
Maybe Sebold's point is that everyone daydreams like Helen. One character tells Helen he fantasized about killing his father: "I think a lot of people do. … They just aren't honest about it." But Sebold still fails to paint a portrait vivid enough to make readers recognize themselves.
Despite these failings, The Almost Moon tells a compelling story -- with some explicit sex and strong language -- about a mother's hold on her daughter, a daughter's love and hate for her mother, and Helen's inability to escape the consequences of her actions.