Carissa Sutter, 126
“I was 14 when I was murdered on December 6, 1973… It was still back when people believed things like that didn’t happen.” The Lovely Bones begins with an important revelation: The main character is going to die. The murdered girl, Susie Salmon, is not involved with the other characters in the novel as a living person. She narrates her perspective of her friends and family as they deal with her mysterious disappearance from her place in heaven.
Heaven, in author Alice Sebold’s story, is a place where people are “given…our simplest dreams.” The people that she interacts with in heaven are those who happen to have dreams similar enough to be able to exist in the same environment. Honestly, the descriptions of heaven feel like what a fourteen year old might expect it to be. It isn’t clear whether this is because the character understands heaven from a child’s mind or if it’s because the author wants to think that heaven is actually a place where all of your dreams are made real.
The narrative as it relates to her experiences in heaven are not the main story. The focus is on the home that this poor, murdered child has left behind. Susie has the ability to watch anyone in the world she wants to watch, but instead she watches her parents as their marriage falls apart, and her siblings as they cope with their shattered lives. She also watches the man who killed her, cut her into pieces, and buried her parts in a sinkhole, as he lives his life. She knows things about his past that even he has forgotten, presumably because she’s dead and can know anything she wants. For example, we get to know that the heel of the shoe that he likes to look at was from a girl he almost killed in New Jersey and that her name was Claire. Being allowed to know things about the killer’s past that even he has forgotten can be strangely thrilling – except that like Susie, we can do nothing with this information.
This story has a weird combination of horror, innocence, naive voyeurism and romance. Because of Susie’s position as an angel watching from above, we are privy to multiple stories at the same time. But through her eyes. But through her eyes as a person who doesn’t seem to have an emotional attachment to her own brutal rape and murder. At some points this is relevant as a distracting personality “quip;” for example when her sister has her first kiss only a couple of weeks after the murder, Susie reacts like a normal teenager: excited to get to spy on her sister having a romantic moment with a crush. There is also a weird moment towards the end of the book when she has a chance to have a real influence on the world, but instead of trying to get her killer arrested ….she has sex with a guy she kissed before she died. Because what any victim of an unsolved rape/homicide wants while temporarily possessing a living body is to experience sex in a positive way.
When The Lovely Bones sat on the best sellers list (in the US) for more than five months, many critics compared it to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The only reason that could support that claim is the simple style that this author has managed to capture. There is nothing flowery about the writing, but there is a depth to it. With her character descriptions, there are large gaping holes. Not bad holes, mysterious ones. The kind of gaps that exist in real life with acquaintances or complicated friends. Those unknown parts of a person’s character that make some of their actions a surprise. The kind of gaps that Lee’s characters had. The difference is, Lee’s characters had highly relevant commentary on the world around them and the problems that they found. Sebold’s characters, though elegantly described, exist as most people exist: stumbling through the world from one experience to the next, reactively. They survive and are sometimes blinded to the mistakes of people around them because they are distracted by their own suffering.
That is not a bad thing, it is an accurate description of how most people deal with loss. There is something familiar and sadly comforting about watching the Salmon family as its members deal with the event and each other. To watch their inner struggles become the unspoken conversation as they interact. Then Susie’s perspective of their lives is reminiscent of any fleeting thought after a loved one dies: “What would _______think about that?”
In some ways, this book doesn’t provide closure. It isn’t a book with a direct line of point A to point B with a firm point C door-slam. It provides the satisfaction of not having to wait ten years to feel the ten years of acceptance. There are some really weird aspects to the way this book plays out and presents its story, but somehow it works. It is a haunting and original portrayal of a heinous crime and the aftermath.
Alice Sebold is an internationally celebrated author who has written three books focused primarily on women who have had violent experiences.
Sebold’s first book, Lucky, was published in 1999. The memoir describes her own experiences of being raped and how it changed her life.
In an interview with Publishers Weekly in 2002, Sebold said, “I was motivated to write about violence because I believe it’s not unusual. I see it as just a part of life, and I think we get in trouble when we separate people who’ve experienced it from those who haven’t. Though it’s a horrible experience, it’s not as if violence hasn’t affected many of us.”
The Almost Moon, Sebold’s second novel after The Lovely Bones, starts with the statement: “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”
Categories: Book Reviews