Shades of family sorrow

Tragedy, especially family tragedy, draws the eye. The ancient Greeks knew this, forging enduring myths about the murderous ambitions of the sons of Atreus or the even more horrifying revenge of Medea against her unfaithful husband Jason. Banked and tended for generations, the passions inside a family seem to burn hotter than any other, and readers turn to such stories with special fervor -- perhaps because we have felt the brush of such fury or envy or resentment ourselves.

A single passionate family act is the engine that drives Alice Sebold's new novel, "The Almost Moon." In the first chapter, 49-year-old Helen Knightly kills her mother, Clair. She hasn't planned to commit any heinous crimes. She has come to look in on her mother as usual, hoping that Clair, whose memory has been less and less dependable, would recognize her -- which she does, long enough to berate her daughter over a missing bowl.

When Clair soils herself in the armchair, Helen automatically gathers towels to bathe her. Then, in a nerveless state, she smothers Clair by pressing the towels over her nose and mouth. "I held the towels for a long time, staring right at her, until I felt the tip of her nose snap and saw the muscles of her body go suddenly slack and knew that she had died."

Why would an apparently rational person do such a thing? What understanding can explain, if not justify, matricide?

The rest of "The Almost Moon" sets out to answer those questions, and in doing so leads us deep into the complicated life of a person raised among the insane.

Everyone knew that Helen Knightly's mother was odd. Her fear of strangers was too great, her judgments of everyone too vicious to come from a normal person. But not until a neighbor tells the teenage Helen that Clair is "mentally ill" does she begin to understand the nature of her mother's state. "It was as if someone had just very gently placed a bomb in my lap. I didn't know how to dismantle it, but I knew no matter how scary it might be, there was a key inside it -- a key to all the hard days and locked doors and crying jags."

Shaped by her mother's demands and needs, largely undefended by her ineffectual father, Helen grows into a difficult, prickly woman. Short-tempered, impatient, obsessively aware that life has dealt her a bad hand, she drives away nearly everyone who comes close to her: husband, children, friends. Even her lover, at their first assignation, points out her judgmental nature. Only Clair holds Helen's resentful devotion, as Helen continues to tend and protect her day after day. The one bond she has most longed to escape is the one she clutches most tightly; after her mother is dead, Helen tucks her mother's braid into her purse. A tie like theirs -- and damage such as they have inflicted on each other -- are not easily suffocated.

"The Almost Moon" takes place in the 24 hours after Helen's decisive act. Readers follow Helen's increasingly erratic actions, which Helen narrates with an unnervingly detached and cool-sounding voice: the seduction of her best friend's son, the phone call to -- and criminal implication of -- her ex-husband. While she makes one questionable decision after another, she reflects on the life that has brought her to this terrible pass. Gradually we learn the details of her history, and the many shades of sorrow and loss that she has borne.

The damage that is chronicled by the novel is not the result of human evil, but of its sadder cousin, human weakness. As a result, there is no villain here, only a downtrodden company of characters doing their best against bad odds. If Helen does not become likable -- she is never that -- she becomes comprehensible, and readers might come to feel reluctant admiration for a woman who manages to keep standing after so much trauma.

The portrait Sebold creates is sad and believable, and in its quality of claustrophobia it allows us to share some small aspect of Helen's often agonizing life. It is sometimes a painful book to read, not because it is not clearly written, but because its clarity allows the author to establish again and again its fundamental, ruthless premise: Helen Knightly was born into a jail of her weak, damaged parents' making, and she is not able to get out.

She is consigned to a kind of hell, the opposite of the heaven where the narrator of "The Lovely Bones," Sebold's most recent novel, was. Like "The Almost Moon," "The Lovely Bones" is concerned with a murder, and like the new novel, the earlier one included a nuanced portrait of small-town American life, through which emotions ripple and drive members to extremes of kindness or -- chillingly rendered here --cruelty.

But readers should not expect a return to the sweetness that suffused Sebold's breakout novel. "The Almost Moon" is a dark work, concerned not with a child's idea of heaven but an adult understanding of an infernal existence, where simple endurance deserves reward, though reward does not come.

Instead of transcendence, we get the details of a life: Helen's childhood home crowded with photos of Clair in her pre-married days, when she was a lingerie model; the neighbor Mr. Forrest's meticulously preserved medieval illuminations that hint at a murder; the familiar, almost welcome ache that develops in Helen's shoulders as she models for a life-drawing class -- in this "lifelike" way attempting to create normalcy for herself.

It is a representative image for this novel: Helen alone on a stage, holding a position that imitates life, while the rest of the world looks on, glad not to be in her place.