The Lovely Bones
- Belling, Catherine
- Date of entry: Nov-11-2002
- Last revised: Aug-30-2006
Susie Salmon, fourteen years old, is raped, murdered, and dismembered by a serial killer who has moved into the neighbourhood. He disposes of her body in an old sinkhole. Susie is presumed dead when someone’s dog finds her elbow in a cornfield. The rest of her body is never discovered. This novel begins with the murder and follows Susie’s family and friends through the ten years after her death.
Her mother and father separate after he becomes obsessed with proving that Mr. Harvey is the culprit (he is, but evidence is hard to find) and she has an affair with the detective investigating the case. Susie’s sister, Lindsay, grows up as the one who has to stand in for two sisters, one present, one lost; her much-younger brother, Buckley, grows up as the one resenting his family’s dismemberment.
Susie’s schoolfriends grow, too: Ray Singh, who first kissed her, is an early suspect. He becomes a doctor. The sensitive, lesbian, Ruth Connors, is near the cornfield at the moment of Susie’s death and feels something she later realizes was Susie’s soul leaving. She becomes a feminist visionary and poet.
By the end, Susie’s parents have reconciled, Lindsay has married and had a child, and Mr. Harvey, the serial killer, has suffered a death perhaps accidental, certainly just. The strong interpersonal structures that develop after Susie’s death are the "lovely bones" of the title, the narrative rather than material remnants of Susie’s life.
What makes this novel more than an account of loss and grief and recovery (though it is a well-imagined account of this kind) is the fact that it is narrated entirely by Susie, from the perspective of heaven. Heaven is a place of possibility, limited only by the imagination and desires of the dead, and it is a place from which the living can be watched, their lives shared and, perhaps, very occasionally, influenced.
Susie suffers being excluded from her family, but her suffering, her voice implies, is tempered by an extraordinary serenity, a kind of calm that most clearly marks the difference between her condition and that of the living. At the end of the novel she briefly returns to the living, inhabiting Ruth’s body and, with Ray, redeeming and obliterating her own appalling first, lethal, sexual experience. After this she can leave off watching "Earth" all the time, as the horizons of heaven expand beyond those she has left behind.
This is a fascinating novel. There is something sentimental and disconcerting about its rather child-like heaven and its redemptive ending. Every objection I thought of, though, seems answered by the story itself. Susie’s heaven is a fourteen-year-old’s version of heaven because she is fourteen. Over the novel’s ten years she matures, but it is a different kind of maturing, differently framed.
The "lovely bones" of her family’ s story are not unconvincing in their normality, and underlying the redemption is the unwavering exposure of the horror that preceded it. To this extent, the book is a heartening exploration of grieving, both in its portrayal of the apprehension of horror (the scene where the father tells Lindsay that her sister’s elbow has been found is absolutely right) and in its recognition that the bereaved continue to live, almost despite themselves (seen through the eyes of her dead sister, Lindsay’s developing love for her high school sweetheart is both wistful and funny).
This novel is an intriguing addition to the literature on death and dying, not least because it constructs an inaccessible perspective on life: the view from after death. One might argue that Sebold unrealistically gives Susie the one thing death always prevents, narrative closure. I was enthralled by the heaven she imagines for Susie, even while I recognized, sadly, that it’ s probably just a story.