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The Lovely Bones

Alice Sebold


UK Hardback

ISBN: 0-330-48537-7

Publication Date: 08-23-2002

330 Pages; £12.99

Date Reviewed: 25th June 2003

Reviewed by: Serena Trowbridge



General Fiction, Mystery, Horror

07-18-03, 02-13-04, 02-13-04, 06-14-04

Some books have an initial impact that is quickly forgotten; some books seem to slowly sink into your consciousness, leaving traces that you stumble across in your thoughts for years to come. 'The Lovely Bones', the first novel from Californian writer Alice Sebold, is one of the latter. There is no doubt that she will attract some attention for being married to Glen David Gold, but her writing is too good for that. This novel has been trumpeted in the press as a "novel of unusual charm" (Times Literary Supplement, June 20th) and I opened it with some trepidation that I might not like it, or that, given the somewhat grisly subject, I might find it too gory for my tastes.

In fact, it is a delicate fantasy that it is hard not to fall in love with. Fourteen year-old Susie Salmon was raped and murdered by a harmless-seeming neighbor, and reports from heaven on the lives of those she left behind. The changes brought about by her death, its devastating effect on her family, the boy she liked and the girls she was friends with, are watched with sadness and longing by Susie. But heaven is what you always wanted, so she can watch earth from her gazebo, she has dogs (and is eventually joined by her pet from earth) and even meets people she once knew.

Her sadness for the life she will never live - the graduation she never attended, the boys she never kissed, the growing up she has missed - is tempered with a teenage lightness and stoicism. She writes coolly about her murderer. She sees as he murders other young women and as the police fail to catch him, and talks about her dismembered body as if it no longer matters. She even mentions that the neighbor's dog has discovered her elbow as the police begin to piece together her body. Her emotion as she watches her parents disintegrate is intangible but touching.

Essentially this is a survivors' guide; Susie, as we know, isn't a survivor in the usual sense of the word, but this is about finding the best in a situation, and how people learn to live and love in a world where tragedies do happen. Susie's narration is an excellent authorial technique, God's eye view at its best, since Susie can combine both the optimistic tone of the teenager with the wisdom of the dead, as well as seeing everything that is going on.

There are a few heartbreaking moments, including Susie's recollection of telling her mother that she was invincible, and the utter futility of Susie and the reader knowing the identity of the killer while he remains free to continue his crimes. But justice of a kind is achieved and the reader is left with a surprising sense of satisfaction.

There will of course be comparisons with Sebold's memoir, 'Lucky', which details her brutal rape by a stranger whilst a freshman, but whilst Susie Salmon skims over the details, allowing the reader to fill in the chilling gaps themselves, Sebold's own memoir allows the reader no such respite, with every painfully horrible detail laid bare for us.

In some ways it is possible to see 'The Lovely Bones' as a sugar-coated fantasy which doesn't always hammer home the pain as one might expect. The lingering pain and loss is present, understated but echoing. Susie Salmon's words will stay with you long after you have read the novel.