'Almost Moon' fails to shine

Alice Sebold's second novel has all of the horror but none of the transcendence of 'The Lovely Bones'

As bestsellers go, "The Lovely Bones" was an unlikely achievement. Alice Sebold somehow managed to take a story about the brutal rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl and turn her first novel into a fairy tale about grief and the afterlife. Writers who are able to wring beauty from horror are a rarity – ugliness is so much easier to capture. It was quite a feat, one that inspired adjectives such as "beautiful," "tender," even "life-affirming."

This time, Sebold seems determined to up the ante: With The Almost Moon, she has crafted a story that no one other than Chuck Palahniuk would ever call "heartwarming."

Helen Knightly is every dependent parent's worst nightmare. The middle-aged Pennsylvania woman shows up one afternoon to visit her mother, who has been diagnosed with dementia. Panicking after her mom soils herself, Helen ends up smothering the octogenarian with a hand towel. "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily," says Helen in the novel's opening line. Covering up a murder doesn't seem to come as naturally.

As Helen drags her mother's body all over the house, trying to figure out what to do, the scene veers into ridiculousness. And Helen's inability to clean a woman she's been looking after for a decade will come off as patently absurd to anyone who's ever taken care of an elderly relative. (There are just certain supplies one learns to keep on hand.)

Helen tops off her afternoon by ensuring that no one will ever suspect that her mom died of natural causes. Next, she calls her ex-husband in California for help. And then she heads over to her best friend's house to sleep with Natalie's adult son.

In a feat that will cause anyone who's flown commercial in the past 18 months to covet his travel agent, her ex-husband manages to arrive by the next morning before the police find the body, thus ensuring that his DNA is all over the crime scene – right along with Helen's. (Clearly, these people have never watched "CSI:" – or even "Murder, She Wrote" for that matter.)

Helen has presumably lost her mind, but Sebold is never clear about this, or about why Helen sacrificed her marriage and adult life to look after her agoraphobic, hypercritical mother.

Clair, we are given to understand, at the core "was rotten like the brackish water at the bottom of a weeks-old vase of flowers." She was hated by the neighbors, who blamed her for watching a little boy die after being hit by a car, rather than calling an ambulance or running to his aid.

Helen's dad was also mentally imbalanced and finally commits suicide. The causes of the Knightly family's mental troubles are never really explored, nor is the question of how Helen managed to lead an outwardly normal life for so long before snapping so spectacularly.

As written, Helen, the artist's model, and Clair, the lingerie model, have the most touching familial relationship since Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane." Sadly, Sebold doesn't seem to have been aiming for camp.

Clair, whose eating habits resemble Maris from "Frasier" but without the whimsy, was merciless to her only child – picking on her "near matronly thighs" and "bat-flesh arms." When Helen, pregnant, drops out of college as a teenager to marry her art teacher, Clair is sardonic rather than concerned.

Sebold does wring a certain amount of suspense out of whether Helen will succeed in getting away with murder, but since she hasn't managed to make a reader give a hoot about Helen or Clair, it's a bit of a Pyrrhic victory. One does, however, feel a pang of pity for the best friend's son.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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