Book Review

 

Author: Alice Sebold
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co.
Page Count: 328

By Lynne DeMichele

"These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections—sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent—that happened after I was gone. And I begin to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought were merely the ones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life."

(UMCom) -- Now a part of the vernacular, names of young girls in the daily news like Jessica Lunsford, Polly Klaas and Samantha Runyon keep reminding us that tragedy strikes "ordinary people" all the time. They keep us mindful of the boogeyman who lurks in unexpected places and who can, in an instant, pitch any family right into hell. How, you wonder, can such a horrific subject – even in fiction – be an instrument of revelation, much less joy?

In her debut novel, The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold succeeds in doing it. Meet 14-year-old Suzie Salmon, "like the fish," as she introduces herself in the book’s opening line. She’s a curious, regular girl eagerly fumbling her way through adolescence in a regular suburb of the 1970s. And she tells us her story in the restless, chatty way of most adolescents, alternately girlish and impatient and sometimes surprisingly wise.

Sebold said in an interview for Barnes & Noble that she wrote the first scene of the book in one sitting, saying, "Susie… just presented herself one day and she told me everything about where she was speaking from [heaven] and what had happened to her." Many fiction fans have since commented online that reading the book was a similar experience, in that once they began the story they were pulled irresistibly – almost compulsively through it. My experience was the same. The story continues to haunt, not so much the dramatic facts of it, but the issues it presents of the relationships between the living and the dead.

On the way home from school one evening, Susie Salmon takes a shortcut through a cornfield and is raped and murdered there. From her own personal heaven she explains to us what happened in a surprisingly dispassionate manner ignoring horrific details. Instead she is much more interested in how the event affects the members of her family, her friends and her teachers. As Susie watches, she can see everything in the small world she so abruptly left on earth; sensing what each person is feeling and thinking. She seems curious rather than angry toward her killer, Mr. Harvey, the strange and solitary neighbor down the block. He is clever, and although Susie’s father suspects what he’s done, there is no evidence to connect him to her disappearance – not even a body. All that is found of Susie is an elbow unearthed by a neighbor’s dog.

As months, then years go by with no resolution of the case, Susie watches the impact of it all: her "brainy" younger sister Lindsey who looks so much like her is determined to be tough about it all; their baby brother Buckley is certain he sometimes still sees her; her father remains tethered to his unrelenting grief and compulsively looks for clues; and her artistic, frustrated mother with the "ocean distant" eyes runs away. The delicate chemistry of the murdered girl’s family and of her community has been altered irrevocably. Those profoundly affected include Len, the sad cop who tries so hard to crack the case, and Ruth, the oddball schoolmate Susie passes on her way to heaven and with whom she now shares a mysterious bond. At the same time, something resembling normal life irrevocably unfolds -- just as it must in the lives of all who have suffered a tragedy.

Ever there in spirit with each of the people she cares about, Susie is nevertheless powerless to point them toward answers or peace. Yet both peace and hope do appear in the final chapters, although not through some dramatic twist or intervention. Rather, they emerge over time in small increments, unmistakably and healingly.

Through Susie’s gradually maturing viewpoint and voice we observe these characters along with her. Missing pieces, missed opportunities and the ephemera of everyday life enrich the story telling, making it personal and almost familiar. Susie remembers events of her life like her single, fleeting boy kiss on earth describing it as "like an accident -- a beautiful gasoline rainbow." Sebold resists the temptation to sentimentalize or sweeten her narrative, and she doesn’t neatly tie up all the loose ends of the story. Still, there is a quiet sense of fulfillment when you finish the book. As in life, there are everlastingly the unanswered questions. But what counts most, as we clearly experience in this book, is the persistence, the inevitability of love.

Lynne DeMichele is a professional writer, editor and former director of communications for the Indiana Area United Methodist Church.

This review and study guide was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.

Please be aware that when you purchase a copy of this book through UMC.org, you are directly supporting this ministry.



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