Sebold, Alice. The Lovely Bones (2002)
Little, Brown, 328 pages, $21.95 hardcover
“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973” (p. 5). So begins Susie’s story, her narrative of watching from heaven as her family and friends go about the business of coping with her brutal death.
Susie speaks from her own personal heaven; other people’s heavens are different, she tells us. Susie’s heaven is not the typical Christian place of harp-strumming angels reclining blissfully on soft, fluffy clouds. In fact, Susie never uses the word angel—when she arrives in heaven she has an “intake counselor.”
When she is killed, Susie is in 9th grade and dreaming of going to high school (which begins with 10th grade). She has a sister, Lindsey, a year younger, and a brother, Buckley, who is just 4 when Susie dies. There are moments of poignancy as Susie learns of a love note she never got to read, vicariously experiences high school by watching Lindsey, and sees her little brother struggle to remember the big sister he’s lost. Susie tells these stories tenderly, but without sentimentality; for example, when the family’s beloved dog finally dies several years after Susie’s own death and finds her in heaven, the dog “was so happy to see me, he knocked me down” (p. 231).
When a novel uses a conceit as unusual as this one—a murder victim telling the story from heaven—the execution must be flawless to remain convincing. Unfortunately, Sebold falters occasionally in creating Susie’s narrative voice. Most noticeably, Susie frequently uses the word save in the sense of except, as in “Everyone was there save her mother.” No American teenager would talk like this, and this speech mannerism jars every time it occurs.
Susie also soon starts sounding much wiser than a 14 year old. For example, when musing on other people’s heavens at Thanksgiving time, 11 months after her death, she wonders:
Were they horrific, these other heavens? Or were they the stuff I dreamed about? Where you could be caught in a Norman Rockwell world forever. Turkey constantly being brought to a table full of family. A wry and twinkling relative carving up the bird. (p. 119)
Such irony from a 14 year old doesn’t ring true. Nor does Susie’s description of her mother’s earlier life: “When I look back now I see that my mother had become — and very quickly after they moved into that house — lonely. Because I was the oldest, I became her closest friend” (p. 150). Yet maybe it’s unfair to judge Susie this way. Heaven is, after all, eternal, so perhaps her age becomes irrelevant.
I’ve heard many people say they would not read The Lovely Bones because its premise—a murdered child—is too disturbing. Sebold’s treatment of the subject, though, is probing yet compassionate. The following passage, from near the end of the novel, indicates the book’s slant:
These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections — sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent — that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life. (p. 320)
© 2004 by Mary Daniels Brown