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by Alice Sebold
Little Brown, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Dec 28th 2002

The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones starts out with its narrator’s rape and murder.  Susie Salmon was fourteen years old when a man from her neighborhood, Mr. Harvey, ended her life.  The crime is described without too much unpleasant detail.  She describes the event as she does the following days, months and years, with compassion and even a hint of wry humor.  Susie looks at the world from her place in heaven, and even comes down to earth to be with her family and friends as they react to her disappearance.  She is oddly dispassionate and rarely displays any anger or even sorrow.  She not only knows what the living say and do, but also what they think and feel, even what they dream.  In some ways, she is an all-knowing narrator, but there are some things she does not want to see.  When her father holds her crying mother, and gently kisses her, Susie looks away.  This story is not just about the grief of those left behind, but also about Susie’s coming to terms with her loss of life.  While the book deals with serial murder and even ghosts and has some thematic overlap with The Sixth Sense, it is in no way a horror story. 

If anything, what is disturbing about Sebold’s novel is Susie’s calm as she witnesses the anguish of her family.  When her younger sister Lindsey is called into the Principal’s office at school, he offers her a banal platitude, saying, “I’m sorry for your loss.”  Lindsey refuses to show any emotion in response.  Susie comments,

“Make her laugh,” I wanted to say to him.  “Bring her to a Marx Brothers movie, sit on a fart cushion, show her the boxers you have on with little devils eating hot dogs on them!”  All I could do was talk, but no one on Earth could hear me.

It’s a strange comment for Susie to make—surely she does not really think that the Principal really should be trying to cheer her sister up.  It’s as if she does not appreciate the gravity of the situation.  She wishes her family could just go on as before, but she is powerless to help them.  She does admit that “part of me wished swift vengeance” but at the same time she is resigned that her father, who suspects Mr. Harvey, will not chase his daughter’s murderer and kill him.  On only a few occasions does Susie cry once she is in heaven, even though she sees all that her family suffers, and how almost every moment of their lives is filled with her loss. 

It comes as a surprise that Susie’s observation of her family and friends does not come to an end after a few months or even after a year.  She keeps hanging around the living, unable to let go, as her family holds on to her memory.  She watches her friends and her younger sister and brother grow up, and she takes pride in their achievements.  There is plenty to do in Heaven, and she does is happy to be reunited with her grandfather, and she even makes some new friends.  But she spends most of her time watching those on Earth, even people who she didn’t really know when she was living.  Maybe she needs to come to resolution about her murder, to see justice done.  Mr. Harvey is a suspect, yet he moves to other places and carries on his killing with no repercussions.  Though Susie’s family finds evidence that confirms their suspicions about him, it is not enough to get him arrested.  Susie’s father gets a reputation as having a crackpot theory and even himself being a nutcase.  The pressure on the family becomes too much, leading to a painful split.  Nevertheless, after several years have passed, there is a resolution of sorts, in which Susie is at last able to come to terms with her loss of life and her family learns to move beyond their loss. 

The central idea behind The Lovely Bones is very powerful—the rape and murder of a girl provides weight to this story, and the narration by the victim makes it particularly original.  Yet the strength of the book is not in its depiction of grief and recovery or any great insight into the loss of a child.  (Memoirs of actual loss tend to convey this far more vividly.)  Of course, a feeling of loss and sorrow runs throughout the story, but what makes the book memorable is Sebold’s unusual perspective, the subtlety of her writing, and the thought that the dead need to let go of the living just as the living need to recover from their losses. 

 

Link:  Susan Brison reviews Alice Sebold’s memoir Lucky.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.