Once in a while you come across a book that feels like a reward for all those hours you have spent reading, reaffirms your faith in a lot of beautiful things, and probably also makes you a slightly better person than you used to be. All those might seem to be quite unlikely feats for a book that is little more than a narrative of a teenage girl’s life and observations, but Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” pulls it off with near perfection.
We hear the story from 14-year-old Susie. Susie Salmon – like the fish, she tells us at the very beginning. Susie tells us how she was raped and murdered by a neighbor while taking a shortcut from school all day. After her murder, her spirit arrives at her own heaven. It’s from there that she looks at her family and friends trying to cope with the loss and pain, and struggling to carry on with their own lives. In her own personal heaven.Susie tries to cope with the longing for everyday things that she can no longer have, and the sight of her friends and family slowly but painfully trying to build themselves a life in which she is no longer physically present.
From such a thin plot, Alice Sebold weaves a story through the eyes of Susie, and through the lives of the other characters. Its worth mentioning that none of the characters have anything strikingly remarkable at all. If anything, they do seem a little typecast. There’s the cocky sister, the grief-obsessed father, the struggling mother and even the obligatory immigrant classmate. What makes them, and consequently the story unique is the disarming innocence and intimacy that Susie colors her observations with, and the infinitely human qualities that we see in all of them. They are all very ordinary people, and like ordinary people they struggle with things and make difficult compromises in their attempts at dealing with this sudden tragedy. And when you read on, like any master storyteller Alice Sebold makes you feel their pain and loss, makes you smile at the small, occasional islands of happiness they find in a sea of grief.
Without giving away too much of the plot, a special mention has to be made of the small personal heaven Susie finds herself in. It’s a beautiful, personal, and completely secular heaven, which strangely makes you wonder what your own might look like. Perhaps my opinion might be a little biased by the fact that there are plenty of dogs in this heaven, something that has an intense personal appeal to me, but hey, judge for yourself. If you Google around a bit, you’ll find quite a lot of scepticism about the complete lack of any sort of divine presence. Perhaps I’m just being the atheist that I am, but in my opinion that is exactly where the book goes beyond the ordinary and the predictable into something surprisingly close to spiritual.
In the beginning I talked about reaffirmation and faith. The story of 14-year-old Susie Salmon is full of the same lessons we keep learning and forgetting: that it is okay to make mistakes, that forgiveness is better than revenge, that it is better to love than to hate, and it is infinitely better to accept, than to judge.
If only we remembered….