No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, March 05, 2010

2010/24: The Lovely Bones -- Alice Sebold

Each time I told my story, I lost a bit, the smallest drop of pain. It was that day I knew I wanted to tell the story of my family. Because horror on Earth is real and it is every day. It is like a flower or like the sun: it cannot be contained. (p. 182)

The Lovely Bones begins when Susie Salmon is raped and murdered by a neighbour: Susie, in heaven, watches her family and friends as they try to come to terms with what happened to her.

Susie's omniscient viewpoint means that every nuance of her family's grief can be examined. She's also obsessed with her murderer: she comes to understand him very well. She watches Ruth, a schoolmate given to poetry -- she was standing in my path that night when my soul shrieked out of Earth. I could not help but graze her. (p. 32) -- and Ruth's friendship with Ray Singh, who might've been Susie's first boyfriend.

I enjoyed this more than I expected: books as popular as The Lovely Bones are often disappointing, and there is something both sensationalist and sentimental about the novel's angle on a brutal crime. Right from the beginning we know that something of Susie survives: we know (we're told) that she's in heaven. Her murder becomes a life cut short, cut free from change, rather than something fragile and full of potential being destroyed for ever.

I'm not convinced that Susie is in heaven. Her heaven doesn't sound especially heavenly. I wonder if it's actually purgatory. (Also, in what sort of heaven is 'how to commit the perfect murder' a popular game?)

And I am uneasy about Ruth, whose whole life is changed by the 'graze' of Susie's soul against hers that night. Ruth becomes psychic; she is forced to bear witness to the ethereal echoes of crimes against women; she gives herself up -- however willingly -- to a loss of control, a lack of will, that borders on rape.

There is no religion, no higher power, evident here. The nature of Susie's survival is never explained; nor are Ruth's visions, or Grandma Lynn's pronouncement 'that's him', nor the mechanism by which Susie can affect physical objects. I don't think it needs explanation, though, and I'm relieved that Sebold didn't attempt theology.

Some beautiful writing and some poignant observations: Susie's mother punished for never really wanting to be a mother, Susie's father always loving his dead daughter, Susie's sister jolted into becoming her own person, an adult person. The Lovely Bones is a thoughtful meditation on the changes wrought -- and the scope of those changes -- by a violent death: it doesn't offer explicit closure, but by the end of the novel Susie may be ready, at last, to let go of the world.

All I could do was talk, but no one on Earth could hear me. (p.28)

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