The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

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The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Susie Salmon is raped and murdered. She watches her family from heaven in a well-written story. Bookbag advises that you borrow the book as you might find the sentimentality a bit too much.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: June 2003
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 0330485385

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Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon is raped and murdered in a cornfield on her way home from school. Most of her body is never found but there is sufficient evidence for her family - mother, father, brother and sister - to accept that she is dead. Her murderer is a neighbour and serial killer. Susie's mother had admired his flower border and her father had discussed fertilizer with him. When Susie gets to heaven she finds that it looks like her local school and she only has to think of something for it to appear magically, except she cannot return to the people she loved on earth. She can only watch their grief.

When I saw this book on the library shelf I wasn't certain that I wanted to read it. I thought that the subject would be depressing and I try not to take my pleasures so sadly. I knew too that the story was narrated from heaven. If the book had a religious theme it would be back in the library before it had chance to grow warm in my hands. The book went home with me because there are two million copies in print, so there must be something worth reading. It was the last of my six books to be read though - and then I couldn't put it down.

The rape and murder take place in the first few pages of the novel. It's an uncomfortable subject but it's dealt with sensitively. The horror is conveyed, but not milked:

"Tell me you love me," he said. Gently I did. The end came anyway.

The rest of the story is told by Susie from Heaven. As a device this works well, allowing the narrator to be omnipresent and to have more knowledge than those she left behind. Thankfully it isn't a religious heaven - there's no god to rule the roost. It's more of a humanist heaven, complete with friends, support system and the occasional pet dog. When I die it's where I want to go. I like the thought that we can each make our own heaven in a world where so many people work hard at creating their own version of hell.

The characters are developed with a sure touch. Susie's father is obsessed with finding her killer to the extent that even the police begin to avoid him. Her mother simply abdicates all responsibility for the family. Lindsey, Susie's younger sibling determines to be other than "the murdered girl's sister". At the time of Susie's death her brother, Buckley, was thought to be too young to be told the truth of what had happened and he struggles to come to terms with her absence. We see too the effect of the crime, of too many crimes, on the lonely detective investigating the murder. The disintegration of the family has a compelling inevitability. Each character is totally convincing.

The book is occasionally sentimental but not to the extent that it spoilt my enjoyment. It's perhaps difficult to avoid given the subjects of a tragic young death, mourning and the rebuilding of personalities into people who are stronger because of what they have endured. The sentimentality came over to me most strongly in the ending, which was the weakest part of the book. I felt that everything worked out just a little too conveniently for everyone concerned. In real life there's usually someone who gets a bum deal.

The writing is elegant. It is simple and intelligent, beautifully constructed. I cannot recollect a single sentence, even a word, which jarred. This is particularly surprising because I usually find that the different use of English employed by American writers disrupts the flow for me. I never consciously noticed it. I normally find unbelievable any book which relies on the existence of a spirit world. Instead I found myself wondering if there could be some truth in it. The dead do have a continuing existence in the lives of those they leave behind.

This is Alice Sebold's debut novel, but I suspect it is not the first book that she wrote. In her first year at college she was raped and the story of what happened and her fight for justice is told in her book "Lucky" published in October 2004. "The Lovely Bones" seems to be autobiographical in more than one sense. Part of what happened to Susie happened to her, but more importantly, we see Sebold emerging in the character of Lindsey and her refusal to be a victim.

This book does have its detractors. There are people who dislike the sentimentality and there are those who find the heaven device too much to take. It's a good story though and it's well written. I doubt that it will become a classic such as To Kill a Mockingbird - a book which kept springing to mind as I read - but if you would like a few hours rich, relaxing enjoyment then it could be the book for you.

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lhine said:

I agree with your comments. I thought before I read this that it would be oversentimental and unreadable, but when I started I found I couldn't put it down. I thought it was beautifully written in an understated way and instead of being depressing as I had feared, was quite uplifting in the end. Would recommend this to anyone.

kell Smurthwaite said:

The front cover of The Time Traveler's Wife reads "This is the next The Lovely Bones," but if I'd read this one first, I never would have read the other & would then have missed out on a fantastic read. To be frank, I didn't enjoy this book at all. I got incredibly angry at the stupidity of a 14-year-old girl who would allow herself to be drawn into such an obviously dangerous position. Even being set in the 70's, it was the decade that The Yorkshire Ripper on the rampage in Britain, it's hard to believe that over in America people didn't take notice of what could happen.

Yes, I know that's not terribly PC of me, but it's how I felt reading it. I think perhaps I would have been able to get on better with the storyline if she'd been dragged, kicking & screaming into that underground room. Nobody deserves to get raped & murdered, but I couldn't help but feel that she'd brought a lot of it on herself & that meant I was now feeling guilty too.

The other thing that I really thought was just a tad twee was the whole heaven thing. I just couldn't get into the flow of the heavens as they were described. Now, I'm not saying I don't think there's anything after death; I'm not even saying I don't think we all get our own personalized afterlife; I'm saying I just couldn't get on board with the way this was written.

And then there's the fact that, as the reader, you know exactly who the murderer is. The ghost of Susie, telling her story, knows exactly who her murderer is. Even her family knows exactly who her murderer is. The whole book is spent wondering when, if ever, the guilty man will be charged.

I found this book deeply disappointing from start to finish & I'll admit to being relieved to finish it. In my opinion, there's not really anything lovely about The Lovely Bones. I found nothing to recommend it.

Sorry, but I won't be reading anything else Ms Sebold writes.

Sue said:

Thanks, Kell - it's really great to hear a dissenting view.

Beverley said:

I was also apprehensive of the "narrated from heaven" aspect of this novel, but was pleased to find it was not at all religious and could be enjoyably read by followers of any faith, or, like me, no particular faith at all other than a belief in life after death, which was why I picked it up in the first place.

If you're expecting a stereotypical Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze type crusade for justice, then you'll probably be diappointed, but if you want a thought-provoking read that successfully explores the shift in family dynamics after a member is murdered, then you'll enjoy it.

The book surprisingly, given its subject matter, is somewhat lighthearted in places, but I admit I did tear up just a little when Susie's dog arrived in her heaven.

Definitely on my list to read again.

amythompson 21 said:

I have to say I totally disagree with what Kel said about the book below.

I think this is the most amazing book I have ever read the heaven part of the book is pure imagination and I believe it is for people to see it however they feel comfortable.

I think each person will see it in there own way.

I find the reality of the murder brilliant as we all know even now 2007 we still here of young girls that go missing and never get found and how easily this can happen, when reading it I felt very sad for susie she missed out on so much and the way she decribed she felt when she died is how I imagine I would feel if my life was taken so quickly! the fact she still got to watch her family would be heaven enough for me.

Having lost alot of people close to me in my life I was told not to read it as it would upset me. although I feel it did quite the opposite! it brought me comfort and like said below its how I would like to imagine heaven would be as I have no religous belief.

After reading this book I had to go out and get Lucky another amazing read!

After reading Lucky I feel like I know Alice and I have so much admiration for her and the life she has led, it is obvious that she has based alot of the characters of herself and friends she new in the lovely bones.

I just hope we see more from her as I can't seem to find a book that enthralls me quite as much as the lovely bones and lucky! fantastic author!