Sebold, Alice

Review: “The Almost Moon” by Alice Sebold [2007]

* Minor spoilers.

Alice Sebold certainly has a knack for writing arresting and captivating first sentences:

When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.

The novel opens with Helen Knightly finally breaking down under the stress of looking after her invalid and elderly mother and suffocates her. The murder is an uncomfortable hybrid of a mercy killing of a diseased riddled body and also out of spite against a cold and loveless mother. After the murder, Helen is filled with guilt and remorse but also relief. As Helen tries to comprehend what she has done and its consequences, she also revisits her childhood having grown up in a rather dysfunctional household.

As an only child born to a mature couple, Helen’s presence is more of an interruption than a welcomed addition to the lovers. As the reminiscences progresses, we find the fraught position Helen is in. Her mother, a severe agoraphobic for almost all of Helen’s life and who lived her life completely housebound, could not leave her house to even save a dying boy in her front yard or to protect her only child from an angry mob of men from assault. Her father, with the veneer of a loving and stable father and husband slowly crumbles from the weight of depression which tragically ends when he shoots himself in the head and Helen is forced to clean up his blood at her mother’s insistence.

The novel is ultimately not about the murder but a study of the complex relationship between parent and child, mother and daughter. Helen herself have two daughters and must now face up that her action has changed all their lives. It is also about mental illness and the way it has been, how it is, misunderstood or incomprehensible.

Some reviews of this book has been less than complimentary. As a stand-alone novel, I liked it but when it is compared with Sebold’s earlier two novels, while The Almost Moon does not measure up it is still a remarkable read.

Review: “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

With such an arresting opening sentence like this, how could one resist this story? The Lovely Bones tells the story of the young girl, on the cusp of puberty, who is violently murdered and disposed of. Susie tells us her story from the Inbetween, a place between Heaven and Earth. The Inbetween is Susie’s own particular heaven that she periodically shares with others. It is from her heaven that Susie, unable to let go of her life on earth, watches over her family and the impact of her death playing out.

As Susie watches her family come to terms with her death in their own way, she is also watching her murderer. Despite its premises, it isn’t a typical crime fiction or thriller that Sebold writes but one about life and what it means to be human. The Salmon family was a close knit, average suburban family with loving parents, three kids and a dog. It is through Susie’s narrative that we find out more about her through her family.

The narrative is amazing. It manages to weave in the past, current and future seamlessly. Susie’s narrative is also remarkable in that she begins her story in a somewhat childish voice but as the novel progresses, her narration becomes much more mature, insightful and understanding. It is as if Susie has aged in heaven while forever remaining a fourteen year old girl trapped in pre-pubescent body. Without spite but with some sadness, Susie watches her younger siblings grow up and her younger sister do the things she would never be able to do – fall in love, go to high school, shave her legs , chase the dog or hug her father.

One of the most moving passages in book is when the faithful family dog, Holiday, finally passes on and arrives in Susie’s heaven:

I waited for him to sniff me out, anxious to know if here, on the other side, I would still be the little girl he had slept beside. I did not have wait long: he was so happy to see me, he knocked me down.

The movement of time is seamless and the death of the long serving family dog is a nice little token. Towards the end of the book, Susie realises that her family is finally ready to slowly move on after almost a decade of unanswered answers. And Susie is too and is thankful for the love of her family, that she was beloved. The lovely bones, aside from alluding to her body, also refers to the bones of a beloved family; the strong bones that a family shares.

On a personal note, I first read this when it first came out in 2002 and this is the only re-read I’ve done of it since. I remember being sad but not wholly affected with the book. With more life experience and insight under my belt, the book is remarkably more profound. I am not a soppy reader but I found myself tearing throughout the book.

Alice Sebold is the most wonderful and fluid writer. Reading her work is effortless and her writing remains in your head after you have closed the book.

Review: ‘Lucky’ by Alice Sebold

In the tunnel where I was raped, a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheatre, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this story by the police. In comparison, they said, I was lucky.

luckyThis preface made up part of the cover of a previous edition of Alice Sebold’s amazing memoir and it is part of a longer preface leading into her recollections. From the very first sentence, there is no pretension or mistake about what the memoir was going to be about. It focuses entirely on Sebold’s rape, her virginity and inexperience with sex (she was a virgin when she was raped) when Sebold was an 18 year old freshman at Syracuse University, the aftermath and its consequences for most of her adult life. Nothing is held back when Sebold details her rape and recounts the moment when she wanted nothing more in the world than to live. After several attempts to escape –

Then I began to run. Like a giant who is all powerful, he reached out and grabbed the end of my long brown hair … that was my first missed escape, the hair, the woman’s long hair

Sebold relents to the demands of the rapist in order to live. This becomes a little problematic during the court proceedings down the track where the adage, ‘it is better to be dead than to be raped’, was still a popular consensus.

Intertwined with Sebold’s story is her childhood and stories about her somewhat dysfunctional family – a mother who was previously an alcoholic and ver nervous, a somewhat reclusive father who was more interested in his books than the family and an older sister whose main motive was to plot her escape away from the family. The two sisters never seem particularly close and, I think, that Sebold writes with guilt that she always managed to spoil her sister’s special moments and never letting her shine. Alice was raped on the day of her sister’s exam and her trial against her rapist was on the day of her sister’s graduation.

Sebold’s story is bravely told and the writing is amazing. There were so many times when I ached for her when Sebold recounts her physical injuries which were quite severe. There were many times where I was moved to tears. Her story also sheds light on how one moment, one horrendus moment, can have such a devastating lifelong impact. While Sebold gains justice in the end and she manages to finish her degree (not to mention taking writing classes from Tess Gallagher and Tobias Wolff), there is no justice for the pain and suffering the rape had caused and perhaps continue to cause.

The ending, as most of us will know, is a quite happy one. Sebold later wrote (the memoir was publised in 1999) The Lovely Bones and The Almost Moon and is married to the writer Glen David Gold.