Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold (unabridged audio book read by Joan Allen)

When Helen Knightly killed her mother Clair, the first thing she felt was relief — the horror didn't come till later. But in the next 24 hours, she will make her ex-husband an accomplice after the fact, have sex with her best friend's son ("'Fuck me,' I said, and hoped that no one's God was watching"), and realize she may just have killed the only person stranger (crazier?) than herself.

Author Alice Sebold has made a career of chronicling the aftermaths of violent acts; first with Lucky, her memoir of her own rape. Next came her debut novel, The Lovely Bones, the story of the rape and murder of a young girl told by the girl after her death.

The Lovely Bones was a sleeper phenomenon — the kind of book (like The DaVinci Code) that becomes popular because people actually read and liked it and recommended it to others, not because some ephemeral influential force says they should — and is the reason Sebold's name is well known today.

With a combination of dark crime tropes and a stream of consciousness narrative style, Sebold's sophomore novel The Almost Moon is a literary noir that is true enough to each to appeal to both audiences. Fans of Gillian Flynn's recent Sharp Objects should especially flock to it, as the pair have thematic similarities though their approaches are distinct. However, it's entirely possible that fans of Sebold's earlier work will be turned off by Helen's completely unlikeable nature.

The narrative of The Almost Moon is filled with Helen's reactive behavior combined with the character's insights into dysfunctional families ("When was it that you realized the thread woven through your DNA carried the relationship deformities of your blood relatives as much as it did their diabetes or bone density?") as she flashes back to her memories of her childhood and after.

Sebold skips back and forth between past and present with an abandon that expresses confidence in the intelligence of the reader (and it is hard to keep up sometimes). She is nonjudgmental about Helen's mostly shocking actions and winds a thread of dark humor throughout, offering some laugh-out-loud moments among the horrific elements.

Academy Award® nominee Joan Allen has a cool, detached delivery that matches the character beautifully. Many times I even forgot The Almost Moon was being read by someone other than Helen herself, which I think is the best compliment I can give. A good audiobook reader is like a good editor — if they're doing their job properly, both should be invisible.

The strength of Sebold's literary voice suggests that she is not finished stretching herself. I only hope that she also expands the boundaries of the readers that picked up The Almost Moon expecting something more like The Lovely Bones and stayed for the great writing.

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