Book Review: The Lovely Bones
Title: The Lovely Bones
Author: Alice Sebold
Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Year Published: 2002
First Sentence(s): “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6,1973.”
The Lovely Bones opens with a first-person description of the main character’s brutal rape and murder. The victim, Susie, recounts the rest of the story from her place in heaven, where she is able to observe activities on earth. She witnesses the search for her killer, her family’s disintegration as a result of the traumatic events, her father’s insistence on finding the killer, her 4-year-old brother’s difficult in understanding her absence, and the joy of watching her sister grow into a happy young adult.
Since the book is narrated in the first person by a dead girl, not surprisingly the reader learns a bit about heaven. As the book jacket says, “She explored the place called heaven. It looks a lot like her school playground, with the good kind of swing sets. There are counselors to help newcomers adjust and friends to room with.” Everyone’s heaven is slightly different, we learn. Heaven is designed to deliver anything any of its inhabitants desire hard enough. Everything except the living, that is.
The book is definitely well-written. I’d feel somewhat guilty if I just trashed the book without first stating that Sebold is a talented writer. But … I really didn’t like it. The description of such a terrible event in the opening — in the first-person, no less — just kind of cast a pall over the whole book for me. I mean, I’ve read and enjoyed many a depressing book, but a 14-year-old describing her own rape and murder just so … morose. I’m not saying that this is not a subject Sebold shouldn’t have written about; I’m just saying that it’s not for me.
There were certain places where the author opened a door and simply didn’t go through it. For instance, at one point we wait with baited breath while Susie’s sister appears to be in mortal danger … and then nothing happens. The concern basically just fades away. You keep thinking it’s going to come back up and surprise the reader at the last moment, but it doesn’t. There’s no big show-down, just a distraction. I mean, I’m glad the sister didn’t die; I certainly didn’t want to see that character go, but it seemed pointless to raise the possibility and do so little with it.
For another example, there was one character who learned that she could see how a person died when she encountered the place where a death had occurred. Although that does play into things to an extent, it seemed to me like more could’ve been done with the possibilities surrounding that. I wasn’t expecting something paranormal or urban fantasy or anything like that, but I hoped that the supernatural would end up playing a larger role in a book that was clearly still serious literature — something like The Time Traveler’s Wife. It kind of reminded me of that Chekhov quote: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” In this case, Sebold picked up the metaphorical gun and fired it — but it wasn’t loaded.
Once I started reading up a bit on the author, I quickly realized that The Lovely Bones is almost semi-autobiographical. Sebold’s first book — Lucky — was, in fact, a memoir about her brutal rape. Unlike the narrator of The Lovely Bones, Sebold was a freshman in college in Syracuse when she was brutally raped in a tunnel. Although the much younger narrator in The Lovely Bones was also raped in a makeshift tunnel, the other major difference is that she did not survive her ordeal. Although Sebold did survive, the police told her that she was lucky because her rape had occurred shortly after another in the same tunnel after which the victim had been killed and dismembered.
“In my world, I saw violence everywhere,” she later wrote. “It was not a song or a dream or a plot point.” Although she managed to go back and complete school — at Syracuse, no less — her parents, like Susie’s, were of little support and she began experimenting with heroin. Realizing that made me begin to think of Susie’s narration from heaven as a symbolic parallel for the author’s own heroin use. Susie escapes to heaven; Sebold escaped to a heroin-built “heaven.” Fortunately, Sebold did ultimately get her life together and is now married and living somewhere in California.
Her attacker was later caught and imprisoned, but I think the best fuck-you to the guy is the fact that Sebold has built such a wonderful literary career out of one man’s horrible actions. Incidentally, I didn’t read about any Sebold’s biography until after finishing the book, but — unlike with Orson Scott Card — I now wish that I had read a little bit about the author before reading The Lovely Bones. Although the story itself is fundamentally depressing, it becomes much more empowering when you realize that the author used her own traumatic experience as inspiration. It’s a pretty sophisticated and enduring form of revenge.