The Lovely Bones
by Alice Sebold
Published by Little Brown & Company
288 pages, 2002
Voice From Beyond
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
At the end of the classic movie, Sunset Boulevard, directed by the late Billy Wilder, you learn that protagonist Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, is dead, floating face-down in Norma Desmond's swimming pool. At that moment you realize, with your lower jaw dangling, that he's narrated a film that documents his murder. It's an interesting idea -- a story narrated by a central character who's dead -- and quite shocking when you reach that realization. If this key detail were revealed any sooner, Sunset Boulevard would be a lesser film.
The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, turns this idea upside down, revealing in the opening paragraph that her narrator, 14-year-old Susie Salmon, is dead, the victim of a rape and murder.
For Susie's nuclear family the event is a nuclear explosion, breaking the tight cluster of her loved ones apart, tossing them into an emotional tempest they didn't anticipate or dream they would ever experience. Susie's father, devastated by the girl's death, becomes obsessed with finding her killer. Susie's mother finds herself released emotionally by the event, and uses it as a way to escape the prison of her life. Susie's young brother, from whom the murder is kept for years, sharply hones a streak of anger. And Susie's sister seems to internalize the violence, reshaping her life around it the way an oyster uses a the irritation of a grain of sand to make a pearl.
There are others, too. A girl Susie knew who becomes focused on the killing and sort of bonds with it. The boy with whom Susie shared her first kiss. The policeman who investigates the crime and becomes smitten with another character. Even the killer himself, a man creepily obsessed with sex, death and bones, which he keeps as remnants of his horrible acts.
All the while, for years after the murder, Susie watches these people from heaven, wishing she could guide them, touch them, communicate with them. But she can't, even if she comes down to occupy rooms with them. There are limits to what she can do: She can hear them and see them, she can know what they're thinking, but she can't contact them.
The novel hinges on all these characters' expectations and how those expectations are shattered by one afternoon's event. The blast of her murder sends the shards of her family out into the world, each of them mentally sharp enough to reflect that world in new ways, and physically sharp enough to cut to the emotional quick. Sebold expertly chronicles each character's new reality, contrasting it subtly, if that's possible, with the lives they might have led if Susie were still alive.
The Lovely Bones is a quick, compelling read, and though it's not heavy, neither is it light summer reading. It's a slight, serious novel that almost comes across like a narrated photo album, with each searing, carefully selected image worth its requisite thousand words. While the subject matter, at least in description, sounds depressing, it never comes across that way, for Susie's voice is far from melancholy. Rather, what touches us is her utter fascination with how her family deals with her death and the endless ripples it causes in their lives.
Alice Sebold has crafted a novel about pain and the near-impossible road one must walk to find healing. It's rare to find a novel that starts with a genuinely good idea -- an idea that makes you say "Cool!" -- and then actually delivers on it on every page with intelligence, verve and an occasional wink. Sebold does that and more, in ways that are surprising, unpredictable and invented, seemingly, by the characters themselves. Everything we experience here is filtered through Susie's eyes and voice. In the end, it's not Susie herself but her family and friends, drawn so uniquely, that brings her so compellingly to life. | July 2002
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, NJ, and he is Creative Director/Copy for a pharmaceutical ad agency in Philadelphia.