Review: ‘The Lovely Bones’ by Alice Sebold

‘The Lovely Bones’ is a tragic tale of Susie Salmon (‘like the fish…’), murdered in her early teens and watching her family survive in a cruel and unjust world from her heaven. It’s left me a bit puzzled: it was an enjoyable and at points a moving read, but there was almost a lack of direction within it which lost me in places.

In a way, everything was covered: friends, family, community, even the ongoing torments of the murderous George Harvey. At times, this was touching to read: the vigil at the year’s anniversary was beautifully written, and expressed how devastations like Susie’s murder create seismic waves, affecting all those within a certain radius. However, at times this became a bit too thinly spread: Buckley’s contempt towards his mother was left at two (finely chosen) words, which summed up his abandonment but failed to represent the ‘heart to stone’ transformation we had been told about. In short, some things were felt whilst others were told to us without imparting the emotions attempting to be represented. Likewise, I feel Grandma Lynn was underused; a vibrant character whose attempts to mend a broken family were key in its survival, yet Grandma Lynn was left as a stock drunkard, instead of investing in her wellbeing and hinted-at grief in losing both daughter and granddaughter, and gaining chaos.

The portrayal of Harvey was perhaps one of the better ones before it trailed off. He was sporadic and controlled simultaneously; he apparently couldn’t stop his inner demons, yet knew how to control the external circumstances to protect himself. In this way, his history was also well-constructed: his mother’s ability to use and abuse her circumstances, and protect her son, showed how Harvey needed to maintain this equilibrium; taking risks to create satisfaction, and protecting this feeling in his extreme actions. As I said, though, Harvey was let down towards the end, and particularly in his ending. I was thoroughly disappointed with how his story concluded; the symmetry with the challenge at the Gifted Symposium did nothing to alleviate the disappointment in this so-called karmic justice. I almost appreciated Sebold showing that Harvey might not be held accountable for his actions; life isn’t that fair. But to quash that at the eleventh hour was unnecessary; it let the story she had built up fizzle out by refusing to continue with the line she had begun with.

There was also the climax of Ray’s story. His final union with Susie was romantic initially, but then it lasted to long. It no longer felt ethereal and sacred, but almost normal. I guess this might have been the intended effect; Susie’s last attempt at living a normal life before passing over. However, it left a sour taste in my mouth, particularly in Susie inhabiting Ruth’s body. It made her and Ray’s alliance seem quite seedy in my eyes; Ruth was being used and abused for her physicality, without thought for her sufferings over the eight years of the story. I also didn’t feel like we’d witnessed Susie growing up; her permanent state seemed to be pre-pubescent teen, again making their encounter seem off-key.

Likewise, I also felt the story should have ended with the family reunion; Susie’s final musings were not needed and, from what we had been told about her transition to heaven, beyond what was expected. The move from a self-created to a pure heaven felt like it should have been the end of Susie’s story. Instead, it carried on past the pearly gates and washed away the images of this state of
happiness we had been longing for on Susie’s behalf.

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy ‘The Lovely Bones’; it was haunting in its appreciation of life after death in both the family’s eyes and those of the deceased. The idea that we are eternally linked and ushered on is beautiful and comforting, and as such ‘The Lovely Bones’ does reflect the need for faith in a world which is cruel and unyielding. Perhaps, then, it is this theme of faith and the small graces of humanity that is what makes ‘The Lovely Bones’ charming to read; it reminds us that life can be kind in these graces, even when things seem uncontrollable and unbearable.

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