Book Review of “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold.
When George Harvey raped and murdered Suzie Salmon, she was only 14 years old. He did this in a room he dug out underneath the frozen cornfields. The story here, told from Suzie’s point of view after she is dead, are her observations of life on earth.
From this description, one could easily have thought this would be a creepy or morbid novel. It could also have been quite maudlin and sentimental. However, we can be thankful that instead it is simply a beautifully written tale. Sebold also employs a point of view that, in this case, is a stroke of genius – by writing it in first person omnipresent, with the dead Suzie speaking to us from whatever afterlife you believe she is now. This point of view is very hard to pull off. Often it will result in sounding like a god or some kind of “Big Brother” know-it-all, at best. At worst, the writer will choose some inanimate object or animal that somehow has the type of communication skills that can further the story. Because of this, first person omnipresent treads the extremely fine line between horrendous and exquisite, and usually results in the former. Sebold’s unique success explains why people call this book a modern classic.
Furthermore, this unique position allows Suzie’s observation of those she’s watching to include understanding their emotions, mixed with her own new experiences. Of course, Suzie’s death at 14 means this is an age she never leaves, but those she left behind grow and change over the years, even as they relive their pasts through their memories. In this way, Sebold combines the past with the present, the static with the ever changing, giving the reader an insight into both loss and the lost – the latter of which we almost never get to see.
Into this, we get the mystery of Suzie’s murderer, which becomes a sub-plot. Suzie knows who killed her, and can observe his actions and feelings, but the world below her is still clueless. Because of this, we get involved in wanting the living characters to know what Suzie knows, and yet like Suzie, are helpless in forcing their hands towards the evidence that would lead to the proper conclusions.
However, complex this may seem, the beauty here is the very simple language that Sebold uses. Practically minimalist, it is much like one would expect from a young teen-aged girl. In an interesting contrast, Sebold includes Ray in this story, the boy Suzie loves. One might think that the circumstances of her death would make Suzie adverse to her own adolescent longings of what physically consummating her emotions for Ray would have been like. Yet, she is and always will be young, which Sebold’s echoes with her lyrical style that borders on poetic, tempered with naiveté – all without becoming sappy. What’s more, the way Sebold ends this book is the absolute model of perfection – not too much, not too little but with an “oh my goodness, wow” type of punch.
Some people said this book changed their view of life after death. However, I see Sebold’s “heaven” as a metaphor or allegory, and not something spiritual. That Sebold doesn’t mention god or religion even once throughout this book is certainly an argument for my interpretation. It is an ethereal encounter with strong psychological overtones, dealing more with how we cope with death and the memories of those we have lost and less about what happens after we die. Using the ruse of a 14 year old Suzie and her heaven gave Sebold the opportunity to look at it all in as many dimensions as possible, while allowing it to be voiced as modestly as possible.
In short, this is a masterpiece novel – one with sensitivity, emotion, and mystery all wrapped up in a magical package that couldn’t feel more real. This book deserves a full five stars out of five, and I’m totally recommending it with all my heart. However, I can’t say that this is going to appeal to those manly-men who feel too macho for this type of book. That’s unfortunate, since I feel that anyone who has ever lost a loved one should consider this as required reading. Sure, it could make you cry – and I certainly did, especially at the end – but a real man shouldn’t be ashamed of that, especially with this book.
“The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold is available (via these affiliate links) in paperback, hardcover and CD-Audio from the Book Depository (free shipping worldwide), as an from iTunes (iBook or audiobook), from Kobo-Walmart (ebooks or audiobooks), Amazon, eBooks.com, new or used from Better World Books, or Alibris, or from an IndieBound store near you. (This is a vastly revised version of a review that originally under my username TheChocolateLady on the now defunct Dooyoo.)