Book Review

2009-01-14 00:00

Alice Sebold is an established Californian writer but this is the first of her books I have read. Once I started reading it though, I wasn’t too sure I would enjoy it.

The story begins with Helen Knightly at her elderly mother’s home about to complete one of her usual chores of cleaning her mother up after she soiled herself. I will not be guilty of spoiling the plot if I mention that Helen acts on a momentary impulse and suffocates her mother. When she undresses and washes her mother’s body and then shoves it in a freezer I thought I might stop reading. But the author’s prose and construction of the novel is so compelling that I just had to continue.

Helen’s apparently unnatural actions force her into a series of unusual events. She calls her ex-husband Jake to help her. He arrives to smooth the path for her but is horrified to find that Helen has complicated matters in more ways than he could have imagined. After all the years of living under the shadow of a disturbed mother, Helen’s life has spiralled out of her control. At the same time, secrets of the past are revealed while police get closer and closer to uncovering the truth.

In spite of the novel’s apparently unsavoury subject matter it is a surprisingly compelling read. This is largely due to the skill of Sebold’s writing. There isn’t an extraneous word in the whole novel and the plot moves quickly towards an almost inevitable conclusion. I’d recommend this novel to those who aren’t squeamish, but it’s probably not a good idea to read it if you are harbouring murderous thoughts about a family member.

Janet van Eeden

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