It’s the great unanswered question: What happens to us when we die? Where do we go, what do we do, who do we become? Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel, The Lovely Bones, seeks to answer those unanswerables, as viewed through the lens of a 14-year-old murder victim analyzing her death – and its devastating effects on the living – from the afterlife. It’s a sad, contemplative, upsetting story about a bright life cut brutally short, and the familial fallout experienced by those left behind. But it’s also a hopeful story of imagination, exploration and, finally, acceptance – on all sides – of those things we vehemently wish we could change, but cannot.
Did I love The Lovely Bones? No. I’m not sure it’s a book – or a subject matter – that lends itself to love. It’s tremendously difficult – not to mention unpleasant – to listen to a naive teenager recount the horrifying circumstances of her rape and murder at the hands of a next door neighbour. And that’s in the first 20 pages. The ending actually fares much worse, undoing hundreds of pages of largely unearned goodwill with a laughable deus ex machina that fares particularly poorly in today’s consent-conscious era. And absent Milton’s efforts in Paradise Lost, I’ve never jived well with simplistic descriptions of heaven, even the ones where every day ends with a musical dog party.
The story is this: Walking home from school one chilly winter afternoon in 1973, 14-year-old Susie Salmon is lured into a rudimentary bunker dug in the field behind her house by her neighbour, Mr. Harvey. While her mother stands on the back porch calling her in to dinner, Susie is raped and murdered, her body dismembered and disposed of by Harvey with indifferent, ruthless efficiency.
When Susie next becomes aware of her surroundings, she’s in heaven – in this book, it’s always with a lower case H. That’s because this is Susie’s version of the afterlife, a young girl’s heaven populated by joyous evenings filled with stirring music and ecstatic parties-in-the-park.
For those descriptions, this novel, an Oprah Book Club entrant, earned the colloquial title of “That book where the little girl describes heaven.” But Susie’s musings on heaven – a place where you are supposed to be at eternal peace – are actually few and far between, and are of a kind of boring, static place where questions about the past are discouraged. Which sits poorly with Susie, a young woman caught somewhere between knowing ALL the secrets of the universe, and none.
Back down on Earth, Susie’s friends and family are faring even worse. They have absolutely no answers, and for a time cling to the dim hope that she has been snatched. But after mounting physical evidence points to Susie having come to great harm, they accept that she’s been murdered, and then set about the unenviable task of completely setting fire to their lives, in ways great, small and utterly predictable.
As the Salmon family’s lives spiral, Harvey evades justice, if not suspicion – you just can’t be a dollhouse-constructing, bridal tent-erecting single weirdo in a neighbourhood where a young girl mysteriously disappears without arousing some suspicions. But with no evidence to tie the man to the crime, beyond a grieving father’s absolute certainty that this is the bastard who killed his daughter, Harvey walks, and after a period of laying low, silently moves out of the neighbourhood in the dead of night and out of their lives.
From her heaven, Susie sees all of this, and as the days, weeks and months following her death stretch into years, her friends and family try to move on without her, while at the same time being utterly consumed by her memory. Much like the idea of being granted a personalized heaven, this is a simplistic approach to loss – that our passing has so much impact, decades will pass before anyone will even attempt to make themselves whole again. I also found I didn’t much care for heaven’s “What’s done is done, now let’s all calm down with a cup of tea” approach to grief. Over and over, Susie is advised by Franny, a kind of heavenly caseworker, to let the past be, that there’s nothing to be gained from tormenting herself over things that cannot be changed. But in doing so, Susie is robbed of an important part of the healing process – pure, earsplitting rage. It’s not the most productive emotion, but it is satisfying, and if a person can’t take a grim sort of satisfaction from challenging the circumstances of their own death, when can they?
The Lovely Bones was a fine book, but for all the things I didn’t care for about it – the least of which was the appalling subject matter – it’s not one I’ll be picking up again.
I read this one in service of my friends’ reading challenge for the 19th theme of “Pick your own.” Long before I ever read The Lovely Bones, I did, however, think that its cover artwork was beautiful. The lush tropical blue fading to a light, washed-out haze is the perfect design choice to convey Susie’s insistent, but fading, presence in the world, as is the image of her dulled, but beloved, charm bracelet. So I chose that as the inspiration for these nails.