My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I wish that Amazon would let us give one book a year a sixth star to denote how special that book is; this is that book this year, this decade. This book is good, real good, Lonesome Dove good, Terms of Endearment good.
This review has some spoilers – but not complete. Be careful – don’t read the review – just go read the book.
Susie Salmon is, was, a fourteen year old girl who was raped, murdered, and dismembered just before Christmas 1973 – that is not a plot spoiler, it is the first sentence of the book. Susie is telling her story from her heaven – everyone has their own heaven. She tells the story of her murder; she watches her murderer; she watches her family and friends.
This novel is the story of those people she watches and the effect that her death has on others. When someone asks Susie’s mother what her daughter’s name was she responds “‘Susie’, my mother said, bracing up under the weight of it a weight that she naively hoped might lighten someday, not knowing that it would only go on to hurt in new and varied ways for the rest of her life.” [p 3] We see these changes as they continue to have different effects on everyone she knew. Watching her parents she sees that “[f]or three nights he hadn’t known how to touch my mother or what to say. Before, they had never found themselves broken together. Usually, it was one needing the other but not both needing each other, and so there had been a way, by touching, to borrow from the stronger one’s strength.”[p 16]
A second story line is the search for Susie’s killer – Mr Harvey – who for most of the novel is hiding in plain sight. Her father has suspicions but the police can not act on them, so Susie’s sister breaks into the house trying to help. Here we see the two story lines weave together; identifying the killer might provide some closure: “She knew that our father had walked into the cornfield possessed by something that was creeping into her now. She had wanted to bring back clues he could use as rungs to climb back to her on, to anchor him with facts, to ballast his sentences to Len [police detective]. Instead she saw herself falling after him into a bottomless pit.” [p 176].
The third story line is Susie’s coming to grip with her heaven and how she can move on. “I did begin to wonder what the word heaven meant.I thought, if this were heaven, truly heaven, it would be where my grandparents lived… ‘You can have that,’ Franny [Susie’s heaven advisor] said to me. ‘Plenty of people do.’ ‘How to you make the switch?’I asked. ‘It’s not as easy as you might think’ she said. ‘You have to stop desiring certain answers.’ ‘I don’t get it.’ ‘If you stop asking why you were killed instead of someone else, stop investigating the vacuum left by your loss, stop wondering what everyone left on Earth is feeling.’ she said, ‘you can be free. Simply put, you have to give up on Earth.’ This seemed impossible to me.” [p 116] She slowly learns to let go but is still connected “I could trace how one thing – my death – connected these images to a single source. Now one could have predicted how my loss would change small moments on earth. But I held on to those moments, hoarded them. None of them were lost as long as I was watching.” [p 226]
This magnificent novel takes a horrific murder and shows the pain and grief it causes and the changes it has on her family and her friends. In the final part of the novel we see if she can pull away in order to let her family grow and move on, without forgetting. How can the family move on without real closure on Susie’s death? And we finally see the meaning of the title “the lovely bones” pulls it all together. We also watch her killer move on through his life.
Susie tells her story in simple declarative statements – like a 14 year old girl; it is wonderful how rich a story of relationships and desire can be told through this mechanism.
The author, Alice Sebold, was a rape victim in college and wrote about it in her book “Lucky” – the title is the term the detective used to explain that the rape could have been worse, the rapist normally killed his victims. So obviously this story has that layer of truth behind it.
Are these family relations really what it is like when a young child is killed? I don’t know; it seams true, but I don’t know. I know three families – good college friends all – who have lost a child. I see the hardship from the outside but can’t really imagine the difficulty in their lives; I can’t come close to understanding it. But because of Ms Sebold’s experience I don’t think this novel is gratuitous – I can imagine it could be true – not real (factual), but true. That is the highest praise fiction can receive.