Alice Sebold’s novel was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2003, the year that Valerie Martin’s Property won the prize.
A friend of mine was so excited about The Lovely Bones, that she bought it as soon as it was available in paperback, and I’ve had my copy ever since.
Because as much as she’d wanted to read it, almost as soon as she started, she wanted it out of her sight immediately and lastingly.
The Lovely Bones has that potential to divide readers, boldly and unequivocally.
It’s not the style, not the voice, not the language, not the setting; it’s the novel’s very premise that will either draw you in or push you away.
Here’s how that happens.
“‘How to Commit the Perfect Murder’ was an old game in heaven. I always chose the icicle: the weapon melts away.”
That’s Susie Salmon, the narrator of Sebold’s debut. She is 14 years old. Forever. Because she was murdered on January 6, 1973.
Readers only know her, in fact, after she has died. In the first few pages of our acquaintance, she recounts the horrifying events that led to her death. It is the stuff of nightmares.
And, yes, in the second chapter, we see Susie’s heaven. We meet her friends there, her case worker; we see the games that she likes to play there.
Because there isn’t a lot for Susie to do up there. So of course she spends a lot of time thinking about murder and death and loss.
But mostly what readers see, through Susie’s eyes, is what she has left behind. She is always thinking and always watching her friends and family, those who continue to live on Earth.
So it’s not an uplifting tale. It’s narrated by a dead girl, and it revolves around what she has lost and how others are dealing with her loss, their loss.
Many readers will be put off by that immediately. Many others will be put off by the extended meditation on grief.
Each of the characters responds differently. And those responses change, too, as time passes, while Susie is still watching.
Here’s one survivor: “He had been keeping, daily, weekly, yearly, an underground storage room of hate.” (269)
And another: “…she had often felt since — that I was with her somehow, in her thoughts and limbs — moving with her like a twin.” (237)
And yet another: “Like someone who has survived a gut-shot, the wound had been closing, closing — braiding into a scar for eight long years.” (242)
I don’t want to identify these individuals because it some ways it’s unexpected, the ways in which members of Susie’s community respond.
But it is true that the expanse of the cast in itself may also divide readers.
The Lovely Bones considers all the main players in this drama, but also boyfriends, neighbours and extended family,a detective, a nurse…and a murderer.
Whether you are drawn in, or pushed back, The Lovely Bones is an uncomfortable — but also, if you can persist with the premise, compelling — story.
In the end (whatever ‘end’ means), it seems that the heart of the novel resides in this belief which one of the characters holds as fundamentally true:
“…the dead truly talk to us, that in the air between the living, spirits bob and weave and laugh with us. They are the oxygen we breathe.”
I enjoyed some of the story’s symbolism (the motif of the house, the idea of structure, what is enclosed and what expands beyond borders), the concept of other-worldliness, and I really did want to see how things turned out for these characters.
Like the reviewer for the Sunday Telegraph wrote (Maggie O’Farrell: “…hours later, I was still there, book in hand, transfixed”), I did find it every engaging and the pages nearly turned themselves.
For my reading taste, however, I would have appreciated a more complex structure, or a stronger sense of place.
A narrative like Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros — which considers some similar themes — has an additional layer of sophistication in the storytelling, and that, with the wide range of various characters’ responses to their grief in that novel, substantially deepened my reading experience of that story of loss.
Alexi Zentner’s Touch (2011), a beautiful and haunting tale of discovery and loss and magic
Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season (2000), for a different take on a family’s unraveling
Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach (1999), another exploration of loss, on the land of the Haisla