Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Lovely Bones--Alice Sebold

Oh my god, what an amazing book! I was so altered while reading this book, so caught up in the pitch perfect ambiance of grief, so moved by the pain that seeps from every paragraph--I can hardly speak rationally about this book. It is definitely one of the best books I have read this year.

In short, fourteen year old Susie Salmon is stopped on her way home from school one December evening, raped and murdered by a neighbor. She wakes up in heaven, where she can watch all the people she has loved as they deal with her death. Her body is never found, only a piece: an elbow. Her family grieves in different ways, different times of giving up hope, of letting her go. Susie watches for eight years and narrates how each person is altered by her death.

You have probably heard it said that the dead envy the living, and that is true of Susie, who had only her first kiss to open her eyes to the world of sexuality before she was murdered. She watches as the boy she kissed matures, and she still loves him. She watches her sister, only one year younger than she was, grow into the adult life Susie would never have. Her father is crippled by grief over her loss, and her mother hurts so much that she is afraid she will die and so she runs away from the family and from her overwhelming loss. Susie's little brother Buckley is only five when she is murdered, and he grows up in a family that has always been broken.

Although Susie knows her murderer, and her father becomes convinced of the man's guilt, there is never enough evidence to tie him to her death. By the time something is found, the man has left town and is never seen and recognized again. The lack of a body, the lack of a criminal trial all stand as metaphors for the unfinished business of grief they all feel.

It is a completely secular novel of death, loss and grief, which is unusual in some ways. The explicit descriptions of heaven and of the experience of dying and the afterlife owe nothing to a specific religious belief by any of the characters. Rather, it draws its inspiration from the almost purely cultural understandings we have of death. There is no judgment, there is no test, there is a heaven where the dead watch over the living. Even dogs get into heaven and recognize their owners.

But it is the overwhelming depiction of loss that makes this book so powerful. Susie's sense of loss is palpable, as she watches her friends move on and grow up into the lives she will never have. The tender pain of her father--at first he is broken by the murder, and then as time goes on, he learns to shelter his heart--causes the other children to shelter and protect him as much as they can. The family is bent around the hole that Susie's murder leaves, and it takes years for them to begin to live without the hole in the center of their lives.

I can hardly do this book justice in a review, because it is in the careful observation of pain and the sustained tone of the book that is its strength. This is a book everybody was reading a couple of years ago, and it is definitely one that lives up to that hype.

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