Summary of "The Almost Moon" by Alice Sebold

by Alexis Rohlin

"The Almost Moon," by Alice Sebold, is a brooding gothic novel about Helen Knightly, who after suffering 49 years of abuse by her mother, Clair, is pushed over the edge and kills her. She drags her mother's corpse to the basement and calls her ex-husband to confess her crimes. Then, as impulsively as she killed her mother, she sleeps with her best friend's 30-year-old son. Helen's actions are explained throughout the rest of the novel.


The novel starts with the murder of Helen's mother, then moves from the past to the present to explain why she did it. Helen suffered a miserable life and felt trapped caring for her mentally ill mother, feeling that killing Clair was the only way to free herself from her prison of despair. The reader understands that Helen has become as mentally ill as her mother was.


As a child, Helen spent her days fantasizing about killing her mother, of cutting her up into little pieces and mailing them to parts unknown. Helen's mother and father had a love-hate relationship. Her father committed suicide, leaving Helen to care for her volatile, abusive mother; Clair, once a beautiful lingerie model, had become a deranged shut-in. In a turning point, Clair watched as the neighbor's boy was hit by a car, doing nothing as he died on her front lawn. She refused to leave the house, leaving her child, Helen, to go outside and deal with the anguished parents.

Almost Moon

Helen's father once said to her, "I like to think that your mother is almost whole. So much in life is about almost, not quites." "Like the moon," Helen says. "The moon is whole all the time, but we can't always see it. What we see is an almost moon -- the rest is hiding just out of view, but there's only one moon, so we follow it in the sky. We plan our lives based on its rhythms and tides." Her father was severely depressed, spending 90 days in a psychiatric hospital. Once home, he fatally shoots himself in the head, leaving Helen to care for her mother.

Helen's Life

Helen is an estranged mother and a divorcee. She lives with a dysfunctional family and is unable to pull herself away from it. To free herself of caring for her mother, she smothers her one night, unable to live with her any more. Throughout the novel, we learn from Helen's life how living in the shadow of mental illness can cause intense suffering and create feelings of despair that cannot easily be ignored. Her inability to cope with her life pushes her to tragic extremes.