How many books out there consist or a fourteen-year-old rape and murder victim telling her story from Heaven? Not too many I’d say, so The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, scores high on the originality scale.
The Lovely Bones is the second book by Sebold; the first was Lucky, a memoir released in 1999. As a fresher in college in 1981, Sebold was brutally raped. When she went to the police, they told her another girl was attacked in the same place and killed, and that she was lucky. She didn’t feel lucky, but it gave her the title for the book that was to follow 18 years later.
The Lovely Bones opens with the abduction, rape and murder of Susie Salmon, and in doing so, grabs you forcefully and compels you to read more. The story is told in simple English. There are no complicated metaphors or images – the author maintains the language and speech characteristics of a 14-year-old girl throughout the book. Therefore despite the seemingly morbid content, it is not a ‘heavy’ book and could easily be read from start to finish in a single sitting.
After she is killed, Susie goes to Heaven, where she meets her intake counsellor and also makes a friend. Heaven, for Susie, is where the swing-sets have comfortable seats, the only class she has to attend is art, and she gets a duplex apartment simply by wanting one. Heaven, therefore, was whatever you wanted it to be, and as Susie gets used to it and learns how to work it, her Heaven expands.
Susie monitors her family, and talks us through their grieving process and their ongoing lives as the struggle to adjust to her death. She watches as her parents marriage is stretched to breaking point, as her sister becomes an adult (complete with husband) and as the baby brother, who worshipped her, becomes a boy. Mixed in with the narration, Susie shares some of her childhood stories with us such as her interest in her father’s “ships in bottles” hobby and “first kiss” conversations with her grandmother. All the while, she is adjusting to Heaven and learning how to influence life on Earth.
This influence, unfortunately, is what prevents a good book from becoming a great one. On the one hand, there is no logical reason for this. After all, if we can believe everything that Susie tells us about Heaven and how it can be customised, why not also accept that she can make a telephone ring ‘down here’? Not satisfied with making a telephone ring, Susie also takes over another girl’s body, so that she can kiss someone she had a crush on as a child. At this point, you’re inclined to think, why draw the line there? If it is possible to intervene like that, why not do something more useful, like maybe pushing someone out of the way of a bus, or telling your loved ones those crucial lotto numbers, or even using your new found powers to identify your murderer?
Ah yes, the murderer. The Lovely Bones is not a ‘whodunit’, so it’s fair to say that what happens to the perpetrator of this horrible crime is not central to the story. However, the hunt for Susie’s killer is still one of the main threads running through the book, and it deserved a more fitting conclusion. The manner in which his karma catches up with him seems rather bland and casual. There is no universal law that says murderers and rapists have to die in glorious Technicolor and surround-sound, or even be brought to justice, but if it’s in a work of fiction, then it should at least be interesting. As it is, you read what happens and think “oh?ok?what now?”.
If you’re getting a mixed impression from this review, that it’s neither a recommendation nor a condemnation, then you’re right. It has its flaws, but The Lovely Bones is still an interesting book, and fortunately the flaws are not materially evident until the last quarter. The plot meanders along nicely without taxing your imagination too much, and if it seems a bit twee or sentimental at times, then perhaps that’s normal for a girl of Susie’s age.
Telling the story from the perspective of the dead victim is an original concept. In general, Alice Sebold keeps things moving, retains your attention, and her style is always consistent with her subject. However the flaws outlined above mean that I did not enjoy this book quite as much as I actually wanted to, in deference to its originality. I suppose that’s why I finished it with a sense of anti-climax.