The Lovely Bones
My latest audio book from the library is The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, a story about a 14 year old girl who's raped and murdered by a middle-aged neighbor, and who watches from heaven as her family both struggles to get over the trauma and also find her missing body and solve the crime. I looked for it after seeing a trailer for the upcoming movie of the same name which is directed by Peter Jackson and stars Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz (see trailer above). The book is pretty good if disturbing, and Wikipedia says that it draws from the author's personal experience of being raped during her freshman year at Syracuse University. Here's a review of The book from the New York Times ....
By Katherine Bouton
Published: Sunday, July 14, 2002
IT takes a certain audacity to write an uplifting book about the abduction and murder of a young girl. But consider that the bones of ''The Lovely Bones'' belong not to the victim but to an abstract and quite positive idea -- namely, that bones are the structure on which living things are built. Alice Sebold's accomplished first novel takes the metaphor of ''bones,'' tainted by overuse, shakes off the thriller trappings and turns not only this but many other clichés upside down.
It also takes a certain daring to write a book narrated by someone who's dead. Not only dead but murdered, and not only murdered but murdered at the age of 14. Susie Salmon (''like the fish,'' she tells us in the very first line) is in heaven. And, yes, she's looking down -- but with a fishy eye.
All is not well in the world Susie has left behind. Her grief-stricken mother has an inappropriate fling and flees to California. Her distraught father attacks her best friend, Clarissa, in the cornfield where Susie was murdered, inexplicably mistaking Clarissa for Mr. Harvey, the creep who lives nearby.
Mr. Salmon suspects -- and we know -- that Mr. Harvey is the murderer. But the police fail to solve the crime and Mr. Harvey leaves town, turning up here and there over the years, observed by Susie but, alas, rarely by the authorities. I won't reveal whether he's caught, but setting the novel in the early 1970's does avoid the necessity of dealing with what one suspects would be a quick resolution in the age of DNA analysis.
Susie has a younger sister and a much younger brother, as well as a boyfriend, Ray Singh, with whom she is on the verge of a sweet first romance. She also has a strange friend named Ruth, who plays a greater role in Susie's life after it's over than during it. Susie will appear to each of them over the coming years. Her brother, Buckley, takes the sightings more or less in stride. ''Do you see her?'' he asks a playmate not long after the murder. ''That's my sister. . . . She was gone for a while, but now she's back.'' But Ruth's sightings of Susie affect her increasingly deeply. As she grows up, acting as witness to crimes past becomes her obsession.
This is a high-wire act for a first novelist, and Alice Sebold maintains almost perfect balance. There are a couple of faltering moments: it seems implausible that Susie's grieving father would implicitly encourage his surviving daughter to nose around in the murderer's house looking for clues. And in a scene toward the conclusion of the book that strains credulity, Ruth does a kind of involuntary channeling that allows Susie one last moment with Ray. But Sebold catches herself in the nick of time, and the book ends on the same appealingly plain-spoken note that it opens with: ''I wish you all a long and happy life,'' Susie says.
Why did Mr. Harvey kill Susie Salmon? Sebold, perhaps wisely, stays away from this tricky territory, though his mother's early abandonment of him seems to be a contributing factor. Susie's chilling description of the crime opens the novel. In brief, dispassionate sentences she tells us how Mr. Harvey lured her into his secret cellar under the cornfield, how she fought back, how ''hard-as-I-could was not hard enough.'' ''I wept,'' she writes. ''I began to leave my body; I began to inhabit the air and silence. I wept and struggled so I would not feel.'' It's a difficult first chapter, and a mesmerizing one.
Susie is our guide through the maze of grief and dysfunction that follows her brutal death. Her dispassionate, observant young voice and poignant 14-year-old view of life don't change much. But she comes to understand things as she might have if she had grown up. Sebold's book is about the mind of a young girl, the reactions of a family to tragedy, the flaws that become enormous rifts under the pressures of grief. And it's about heaven.
In Susie's world, each person's heaven is custom tailored. ''We had been given, in our heavens, our simplest dreams,'' she explains. Susie's heavenly mentor, Franny, a former social worker, occupies a heaven where she can serve others and be ''rewarded by results and gratitude.'' Susie's own afterlife has school but no teachers, peppermint-stick ice cream and fashion magazines.
Susie gradually realizes she's not actually in heaven yet. ''How do you make the switch?'' she asks Franny when she realizes she's only halfway there. ''It's not as easy as you might think,'' Franny replies. ''You have to stop desiring certain answers. . . . If you stop asking why you were killed instead of someone else, stop investigating the vacuum left by your loss, stop wondering what everyone left on earth is feeling, you can be free. Simply put, you have to give up on earth.'' But Susie's not ready to do that, not for a long time. Not until she finally sees something in her family that gives the novel both its title and its resolution: ''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 when Susie is finally free, so are those who loved her. ''When the dead are done with the living,'' Franny tells Susie, ''the living can go on to other things.''
This book happens to have been published at a moment when a real-life kidnapping of a 14-year-old girl, Elizabeth Smart, taken from her comfortable middle-class bed in the dead of night, haunts the news. The very idea of Sebold's subject matter might make a reader queasy. But there's nothing prurient or exploitative in ''The Lovely Bones.'' Susie's story, paradoxically, is one of hope, set against grim reality.
Sebold is also the author of a well-received memoir, ''Lucky,'' about the harrowing experience of being raped as a college freshman. In ''The Lovely Bones,'' as in that book, she deals with almost unthinkable subjects with humor and intelligence and a kind of mysterious grace. Like Anna Quindlen's ''Black and Blue'' and Russell Banks's ''Sweet Hereafter,'' ''The Lovely Bones'' takes the stuff of neighborhood tragedy -- the unexplained disappearance of a child, the shattered family alone with its grief -- and turns it into literature.