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The Lovely BonesThe Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. My murderer was a man from our neighborhood. My mother liked his border flowers, and my father talked to him once about fertilizer.”

Susie Salmon watches from the ‘Inbetween’, a special kind of ‘tailor-made’ heaven, only it’s not. The ‘Inbetween is more like heaven’s ‘waiting-room’, a purgatory of sorts, a resting place for lost souls to abide until they are ready to move on. It’s a place for those like Susie Salmon, who still cannot cut herself off from what she left behind. Here, in Susie’s personal paradise, the sun never sets, dogs run freely through fields and children from other heavens appear at will, visiting those who share the same dreams.

The ‘Inbetween’ is an endless abyss that morphs and shifts to accomodate the perpetual flow of the dead. What is a soul, if it is not pure memory? The sum of all our experiences? The sights, smells and sensations of its’ first life on Earth? So it is, and it is such that the ‘Inbetween’ (that vast network of collective thought) is nothing but a mirror for souls to cast upon the very memories that obsess them. For souls like Susie, it is not easy to accept death. Even if you do, you cannot forsake the living. So Susie watches from the ‘Inbetween’, through the days, months, years after her death, watching her family grieve, her friends grow-up and her murderer live to kill others. Susie tells her own story; the before and the after, the things that could have been and the things that could never be, and that is what makes this novel so intriguing.

“These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections – sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at a great cost, but often magnificent – that happened after I was gone.”

I can’t recall many stories that begin with the crime already committed and the murderer’s identity revealed. I suppose I can’t, because it’s such a difficult perspective to write from. However Sebold’s bold ‘God’s-eye view’ has it’s advantages. For one, the reader feels like they are in on the action – there is a certain privilege that comes with knowing things that other characters don’t. Susie has taken us into her confidence, she offers us glimpses of the netherworld and the world she left behind which gives the narrative a delicate magic.

Who hasn’t wondered what heaven is really like, or whether our loved ones still watch us after their gone? For anyone who has lost a child to a violent death, these questions barely scratch the surface of their anguish. But Sebold demonstrates her sensitivity to this particular type of grief, and this is evident with the creation of the ‘Inbetween’. It shows she has taken the time to consider Susie from her parents’ perspective; the pain of the lost and those who lose. The concept of a personal paradise is by far the most exquisite part of the novel and offers readers a welcome retreat from the intensity of the ‘earthly’ moments where Susie’s killer still stalks the neighbourhood, marking out his prey.

However, the novel does succumb to the dangers of an omniscient narrative. Having built up a wonderful momentum at the beginning of the novel (see opening paragraph at top), Sebold finds it difficult to maintain the ‘otherworldliness’ of her plot. Halfway through, I found myself losing attention, and often patience with some of the characters, but with the passing of time the characters are allowed to grow-up allowing more room for a different direction. This comes in the form of a yearning. Susie witnessing her life as it could have been, ceases to understand her now adolescent friends. She will never be older than fourteen, perpetually pre-pubescent, always a little girl. She wonders what love is like, a first kiss and begins to sense what was truly taken from her.

While all this is happening, Susie’s murder does not lie quietly in the past. Sebold shows us how it emerges every now and then, refusing to stay silent. Like a broken bone that juts out from under skin, Susie’s terrible memory also protrudes throughout time, reminding her murderer that nothing ever stays a secret.

I know many people have complained about Sebold’s writing and I admit, I wasn’t too keen on reading it either. I like my reads well-seasoned, time-honoured, ‘vintage’ if you like. But I was wrong this time. ‘The Lovely Bones’ may not have the depth and density expected of a story like this, but there is still much to learn and enjoy.

A mixture of the mundane and the occult is what gives this story its disturbing edge. Sebold manages to keep two parallel worlds in check as she writes, and that is no mean feat. However the best part of this book is the ending. I admire Sebold for turning a harrowing story about rape and murder into one of hope and peace. I think I’m right when I say you too will be surprised at the emotions you’ll go through when you read this.

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