It took Alice Sebold all of two sentences to kill off the heroine of her first novel, The Lovely Bones. That book began as follows: "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." Her second novel, The Almost Moon (Little, Brown; 304 pages), arrives Oct. 16, and this time Sebold draws blood in half the time. The first line reads: "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily."
Sebold is fascinated by physical cruelty. She knows about it firsthand: her first book was a memoir, Lucky, that describes her assault and rape by a stranger during her freshman year of college. But unlike Lucky and The Lovely Bones, The Almost Moon is not the story of a victim. Helen Knightly, 49, is caring for her elderly, demented mother, with whom she has always had an angry, fraught relationship. One day Helen snaps and smothers her. It's like a mystery in reverse: you know exactly who got done, by whom and how. "I wish I could say that as my mother lay on the side porch," Helen tells us, "and the wind began to pick up more and more so that the crows clinging to the tops of the trees took flight, that she made it easy on me. That she pointedly listed all the sins she had committed during her long life." Needless to say, she does not.
In fact, nobody makes things easy on Helen, not her mother, her children or her ex-spouse. Certainly Sebold doesn't. The Almost Moon spins out over just 24 hours, each of them taut as piano wire, though Sebold also ranges over the full course of Helen's memories to show what brought her to this unthinkable act. Sebold's unblinking authorial gaze is her hallmark: where lesser writers would turn away from things too horrible to see or feel or admit, her scrutiny never wavers.