Monday, October 18, 2021

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold


The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is a novel about loss. It deals with the idea that bereavement changes the living, opens a hole in survivors’ lives that they continuously have to avoid, continually have to accommodate, lest they themselves be consumed by its void. But this gap in life, this emptiness that must always be acknowledged without ever approaching too close to its gathering currents also imposes new directions on continuing lives, demands diversion from paths that previously led directly towards the future. And, if they could see it, what would the deceased make of their continuing, if unintended influence? Would they revel in the power, or feel embarrassed about causing all the fuss? Effectively, this is the scenario that plays out during the entirety of The Lovely Bones.

At the start, Susie Salmon is fourteen years old. And like any pubescent girl, she has crushes, imagines what sexual encounters might be like, has friends, goes to school. She has a younger sister and a much younger brother, plus parents who plod along in their devotion to the family.

We are in Canada, but the place is not important. Suffice it to say that it’s rural and pretty quiet, with vast expanses of cold, snow-fluttered fields. Nothing is revealed about The Lovely Bones by stating that the fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon was murdered on December 6, 1973. The book begins with the crime and we follow the victim as far as heaven. Thus, the complications begin.

There is no body, just the remains of an elbow. There is a suspect, but evidence has been erased. We know everything about the crime, so there is no suspense involved, only consequences. From her rather superior vantage, Susie Salmon observes. She watches how grief rips into the fabric of her family. She watches how her classmates try to cope with the forced realignments of their friendships. She watches as her murderer continues to evade justice. And she learns that this is not the first time he has succeeded. She watches as the police investigate, perhaps not as competently as they might. She watches as all those she has left behind become changed by her absence, as they learn to live with the void she has left.

Now having the victim in an all-seeing heaven allows Alice Sebold to use a standard, god’s-eye-view, third person narrative, as if it is Susie who is describing events. Too often, however, it is the author who is speaking and clearly not her character, who presumably could offer much more in the way of opinion or reflection on events. So, what unfolds is essentially a tale of family disintegration seen from afar. The disintegration happens slowly and, it has to be said, sometimes rather repetitively.

Unfortunately, as well, the end of the book was just too sentimental for this particular reader. In fiction, I am willing to suspend belief or perhaps succumb to it, and for, the purpose of the plot, I am willing to accept that there might be a heaven from which one might observe. But to accomplish what Susie does late in the book was taking myth just a little too far. The Lovely Bones remains worth reading. Its slow development might convince some readers that such forensic analysis of the details of these relationships too often strays into indulgence. But, one supposes, when one has an eternity in which to keep occupied, little things do make a difference.

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