The Almost Moon

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      By Alice Sebold. Little, Brown; 291 pp; $28.99; hardcover

      Death, suffering, and violence fill the landscapes of Alice Sebold's work. Her memoir, Lucky , detailed the brutal assault and rape she suffered as a freshman at Syracuse University, and the long, downward spiral of self-harm and heroin addiction that followed. Her "luck", according to police, was that the previous victim had been murdered and dismembered.

      Sebold's first novel, The Lovely Bones , kills off its heroine, 14-year-old Susie Salmon, before you've even turned the first page. Yet it was a smash hit, full of haunting compassion and longing, as Susie, watching from heaven, sees her family and friends discover healing after grief.

      But Sebold also filled the story with real warmth, and it became an international bestseller, one of the reasons Peter Jackson, who directed the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was charged with bringing it to the big screen.

      That sympathetic tone is starkly absent in Sebold's sophomore fictional outing, The Almost Moon, set in small-town Pennsylvania. This time the murder comes even quicker–in the opening line–and the subject matter, matricide, is again challenging. But the narrative voice of Helen Knightly, who has suffocated her mother, is too clinical: "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily."

      The novel whizzes through the killing's 24-hour aftermath, skipping back and forth through Helen's memories of her troublesome childhood, her father's suicide, her own failed marriage, and her struggle to raise two daughters. "When I was a teenager, I thought every kid spent sweaty summer afternoons in their bedrooms, daydreaming of cutting their mother up into little pieces and mailing them to parts unknown," she recalls. "As I agreed to take out the trash, I cut off her head. As I weeded the yard, I plucked out her eyes, her tongue. While dusting the shelves, I multiplied and divided her body parts."

      This pace, and Helen's chilling narrative tone, mean little humanity seeps through. The Almost Moon 's bleakness and hopelessness make it unlikely to be held in the same affection as its predecessor.