Friday, 10 July 2009

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

“These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections — sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent — that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events my death brought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous lifeless body had been my life.”

At just 14, a hopeful and happy girl, Susie Salmon is raped, murdered and dismembered by a psychopathic neighbor. She ascends to heaven, or rather, her heaven, where she watches her family and friends struggle to cope with their loss; and constantly tries to push into the gaps she left in their lives.

This book was a massive bestseller, which often seems to mean that it is complete tripe (viz: the Da Vinci Code), but in the case of The Lovely Bones it deserves all the praise it gets. It’s harrowing and beautiful in equal measure. Sebold explores the concept of an afterlife with all the imagination and tenderness that comes from not having experienced it: it’s a very human, very real exploration in which the afterlife is strongly tied to the physical world, and the dead can ‘watch’ the goings-on of their loved ones (and, as in Susie’s case, their killers) and conjure up material comforts for themselves in their realm.

Susie keeps an eye on her killer, who isn’t captured, and watches as her family is torn apart by her murder and the consequent grief and guilt and madness. I found the book to be mostly devastating, and only a little cathartic – but the catharsis owes entirely to the excellent balance of Sebold’s writing and her ability to shine a spotlight through bleak emotional fog; to guide the reader through their own grief and to their own acceptance and understanding. Sebold is a rape victim herself and as such it is astounding that she can write about these things with clarity, emotion, and a certain sense of clinical detachment. She depicts the character of Susie’s killer in a very human, very realistic and therefore very chilling way. Your instinct is to class someone like that as a monster – the last thing you want to do is understand them or relate to them. And yet Sebold explores that side of death, too: understanding.

I love the title of this novel, which evokes that beautiful morbidity that underlines every word. The Lovely Bones is not light-hearted, but it is full of heart. It will make you think, and possibly even reassess your spiritual beliefs. And of course, have tissues at the ready.

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