If you’re into crime fiction, The Lovely Bones isn’t the book for you. It may look like a whodunnit, but it’s about the emotional repercussions of crime. And unlike most murdered characters in crime stories, 14-year-old Susie Salmon has one advantage: she gets to show us what she’s really like.
She’s unnervingly matter-of-fact for someone who’s just been murdered. Anyone else who’d been lured into their neighbour’s basement, raped and killed, would have been traumatised. Sebold doesn’t even let Susie use a couple of expletives. Susie detachedly describes her rape, mentions how her killer forgot to pick up her elbow, and respectfully calls her murderer ‘Mr Harvey’. It’s so unnatural, it’s intriguing.
Demoted from heroine to ethereal narrator, Susie watches her siblings and friends grow up. Her disembodied observation of Earth proves to be a mixture of self-torture and therapy. After years of yearning to enjoy the pleasures her sister still can, Susie is finally granted a Cinderella wish by psychic schoolmate, Ruth, to spend a brief time on Earth while Ruth vacates her body to take a look at heaven.
Sebold is a master story-teller. Her novel is gripping without cliffhangers, unusual characters or plot twists (one excepted). She has a compelling style, although phrases like “transmutable commodities” give 1970s comprehensive education more credit than it deserves. At least we’re spared the boredom of flat prose for the sake of ‘realism’. There are some neat phrases to enjoy as well, including “tuxedoed muscles” to describe penguin skin.
The only disappointment is that Harvey evades arrest. Susie says that he’s an artful criminal, but really it’s the incompetence of the police that makes the novel go on so long. Any detective with a brain would have investigated a nearby sinkhole for remains, or at least checked with the people managing it who had been the last depositor. They don’t even conduct a proper check of Harvey’s house. A serial killer is more likely to stash murder weapons in wall crevices than in his kitchen cupboard. He drives back to Susie’s neighbourhood in a distinctive car (the police scribble down the numberplate), he sleeps beside the grave of a victim, who has just been exhumed, and still no one catches him. Perhaps we’re meant to despair at these cruel twists of fate, but we just wring our hands at Sebold’s procrastination tactics.
Harvey does get poetic justice, in the shape of an icicle crushing him after he tries to seduce another young woman. A fitting sentence it might be, but considering Sebold’s plot is relentlessly realistic throughout the story (Susie’s possession of Ruth excluded), it’s mind–numbingly out of sync. Maybe she got bored and decided to finish him off, but his death does at least point out that his arrest is irrelevant. Dragging the case back into the limelight after so many years would do the Salmons more harm than good. No amount of revenge could replace their daughter.
It’s a sad story, but didn’t bring me to tears once. If Susie had been more emotional, I might have felt the waters welling, but I’m glad Sebold spared me. The book has been Susie’s therapy – she’s accepted her eternal separation from the living, and the ‘lovely bones’ turn out to be a symbol of a broken family’s reconstruction into a stronger bodily unit. Susie sees this as a positive, and it helps her to come to terms with her death, but for unity among those left behind, it’s an extortionate price to pay. VP
Alice Sebold The Lovely Bones book cover copyright Little, Brown and Company (publishers)