18. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002) 328 p.
One day something terrible is going to happen to me, when somebody that I deeply love dies. It will happen to everyone. It’s something that we deal with when we come to it, that we pray will happen at the end of a long and happy life, and that we would prefer not to think about.
The Lovely Bones tells the story of Susie Salmon, a 14-year old Pennsylvania girl who is brutally raped, murdered and dismembered by the neighbourhood pedophile in the first chapter of the book. She narrates the next ten years of her family’s life from her quiet, secular heaven, examining the effects of her murder on her family and friends.
Despite the narratorial gimmick, this is hardcore realist fiction, with some very poignant moments of horror and grief. The book is at its strongest in the early chapters, in the days immediately following Susie’s murder, as her family goes through the unimaginable trauma of knowing, deep down inside, that their daughter is dead – and yet not even having a body for closure (incidentally, this led me to make an early assumption about the book’s title which was later proven completely wrong). The tragedy strips her family members down to their bare selves, revealing their true characters. Her father is a strong person. Her mother is a weak person. The detective investigating her death hovers somewhere in between. One cannot help but imagine their own loved ones murdered, disappearing without a trace and leaving behind only blood and a grisly body part, and one cannot help but imagine how they would react in a similar situation. That is the time-honoured hook of a story about a believable tragedy.
But this cannot sustain the story for 300 pages, and the book decreases in quality as it progresses. I read the entire second half in a single day, but this was mostly because it was so bleak and depressing and I wanted it over and done with (also partly because I am very much anticipating the next book on my reading list). Being depressing doesn’t neccesarily make a book bad – indeed, it can sometimes make it truly excellent - but it is never going to be an enjoyable read. The final chapters of the book deepen the slippery slide, with a completely left-field, mystical experience, and an unsatisfying conclusion regarding Susie’s murderer, whom she watches as closely from heaven as she does her own family members. It felt as though Sebold knew exactly how she wanted to conclude the fate of the pedophile whom she has made the reader loathe so deeply, but realised that people would dislike it, and so settled for a half-and-half ending which is worse than either extreme.
And Susie’s heaven, the aspect of the book which sets it apart from others of the same genre, is frustratingly underdeveloped. It’s intriguing at first – there are suggestions of “other” heavens, hints that perhaps Susie is really in purgatory, and an overall feeling that it’s building up to something. But none of this ends up going anywhere, and the main story is grounded entirely on Earth.
Ultimately, The Lovely Bones is objectively a good book, but not my kind of story and not as good as it could have been.