The whole of a person

<strong>The Almost Moon</strong>

Alice Sebold <em>Picador, 291pp, £16.99 </em>

The moon is the powerful symbol looming over Alice Sebold's dark, unflinching new novel. Like the moon, wherever Helen Knightley travels, she feels her mother will always be there, haunting her. This is not as comforting a prospect as it might be to other children - Helen's mother suffers from dementia, which reveals "the core of a person" - and "her mother's core was rotten like the brackish water at the bottom of a week-old vase of flowers".

The Lovely Bones, Sebold's bestselling debut novel, was narrated by a dead child narrator looking back on the earth she has left behind. Murder haunts The Almost Moon, too - the novel opens on the day that Helen, now a grown woman, kills her mother. Her mother is 88 years old, and her breathing is ragged when Helen takes the towels with which she had meant to bathe her and smashes them into her mother's face.

What is it like to live with an unstable mother? Sebold explores the emotional turmoil of a woman who could not quite bear the burden. Parent/child relationships are reversed for the young Helen, who must be both a physical and an emotional crutch for her sick mother to lean on. She has warmed baby food and fed it to her mother with long pink spoons pilfered from Baskin-Robbins; she has carted her to doctors' appointments, first with blankets and then towels to hide the world from her sight. She has even watched her drop her own grandchild.

Although the killing liberates her from the corporal burden of her mother, however, she is condemned to relive memories of her childhood that come flooding back. The sense of constriction and isolation permeating Helen's life is powerful. She is an outsider, alienated by her "crazy bitch" of a mother.

This is an acute portrait of what it is like to live with a mentally unstable mother who is "always crumbling and crying, barking and biting" and the painful gulf between mother and daughter - "to reach her seemed impossible to me", confesses Helen. Sebold brings out compellingly these antagonistic desires: "I forgot my hatred of my mother and opened up to my love. It was, like a playground seesaw, so easy to pitch from one side to the other."

While the physical details can be gratuitous, it is the subtle and delicate emotional journey that most engages. Not only is Helen's mother like the moon in the way she haunts her daughter, but she is also associated with her in a plethora of other ways. "I like to think your mother is almost whole," her father tells her as a child. "So much of life is about almosts, not quites." When the young Helen suggests, while looking at a thin crescent, that this is like the moon, her father objects that the moon is whole all the time, yet we can't see all of it. "What we see is an almost moon or a not quite moon. The rest is hiding just out of view."

Likewise, this is a journey of an attempt to see the whole of a person, constantly surprising the reader with different aspects of the mother's personality, for Helen has few clues to her mother's life except those found in silver picture frames. As her family attempts to pluck out the heart of the mystery, wanting both to discover her and escape from her, ignorance is bliss.

As Helen's father absorbs and deflects his wife's violence, "he also saved her from seeing herself as she had become". Instead, she sees the same reflections of herself in the old photographs that fill the house - the present moment too painful to inhabit. "Too much history, like too much truth, could prove painful," writes Sebold, of a mother who takes refuge in a history while her daughter yearns futilely to escape from it.