For the past few weeks, I’ve been meaning to get a copy of “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold. I knew there was a movie, but that wasn’t the reason why I wanted to read it. The reason was that while passing by a bookstore one night, I read the summary at the back of the book. I haven’t been able to get the story out of mind since then. If it was written in the first person from the point of view of a murdered child, and if we know of her murder from the onset, what else is there to talk about? Shouldn’t her murder be the climax of the novel?
Well finally I got a copy of the book last night. My biggest mistake was deciding to browse through the first few paragraphs of chapter one at 12 midnight. The narrative starts at the heart of the matter – no lengthy descriptions to set up the story – and it was definitely gripping. I found myself unable to put it down and finished reading until 4 am. (As a result, I slept through my alarm clock and woke up with a start at 8 am, nearly late for work).
The narrator, Susie Salmon, opens the story by introducing herself in a very matter-of-fact way: ”My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was 14 when I was murdered on Dec. 6, 1973.” At first I thought the story would be about the search for her killer, but that wouldn’t really make sense if she was the one telling the story from “heaven” because she would presumably know who killed her. At any rate, by page 2, the readers know that it is Mr. Harvey, an eccentric neighbor of the Salmons.
What follows is a coming-of-age story about a person who will never age. If that doesn’t seem to make sense, perhaps it is better described as a coming-to-terms story in that it tells how her family has finally come to terms with their loss, and how the narrator finally comes to terms with her death.
There are a couple of parts in the book that were so well written that they admittedly gave me the creeps. The first was how Susie described how she was being raped, like how she was gagged with her own hat. It was rather graphic, and her voice was very convincing as a teenager. The second was how her soul violently separated from her body in her death and accidentally ran through a classmate – the last person she was able to “touch” – before she went to the afterlife.
There is one thing about the story that I really really hate though. Susie is finally granted her wish and was able to inhabit the body of her classmate Ruth for a few minutes. For a short time, she was able to return to earth. You’d think that her first instict would be to tell everyone who killed her, how she was killed, and where her body can be found. You’d think she’d immediately rush home to embrace her family, comfort her parents and talk to her siblings. But no, what she does is seduce her long-time crush and sleep with him. After they were done, that’s the only time she thought of calling home, but by then it was too late and her soul was on its way back to her “heaven.”
Another questionable portion for me is how after-life is portrayed, since this isn’t what I believe in personally. However, I do understand that people with different belief systems have different concepts of heaven. The “heaven” in this book seems to consist of two parts – an in-between “heaven” where you get anything you wish for – dogs, a gazebo, a school where your textbook is Seventeen and Vogue – and the real “heaven.”
In the end, this story is not just about how the living has to let go of the dead in order to move on with their lives, but also about how the dead has to let go of the living in order to get to the real “heaven.”