I finished Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones last night, and it is indeed a strange and haunting novel. Sebold's writing is harsh at times and infinitely gentle at others. Her idea of heaven is strange and Godless and perhaps very comforting to non-Christians who would desire to maintain connections with their loved ones still on earth.
Here's a quick summary: 14 year old Susie Salmon was raped and killed by a neighbor at the beginning of the story, and we see the shock waves of her disappearance affect her family: her father (who has strong suspicions at to the identity of Susie's murderer, and he is right on the money although no one believes him or can find proof until quite some time later), her mother (who ends up having an affair with the detective on the case then runs away to California for years), her younger sister and very young brother, her grandmother who comes to live with them when her daughter leaves her family, as well as her school friends, her neighbors, and, most intriguing of all, her killer. Susie observes all that we see from different levels of heaven, and she, as our first-person narrator, even comes to see into the minds and hearts of those she loved as well as her murderer. It's a fascinating look into life in the 1970's and how grief affects people differently, including Susie's own grief at her life being cut so violently short.
I didn't much care for the scene in which Susie enters Ruth's body and Ruth goes to heaven while Susie and Ray make love. That was simply too weird and too blatant for me. But the look into the 1970's cookie-cutter suburbia was fascinating -- how dysfunctional families attempt to function, how grief both tears people apart and brings them together. I thought that Sebold's examination of the minutiae of life was intriguing and was the strength of the novel. Her writing is evocative, pungent, yet gentle and patient at times. She has deep insight into grief and how different people respond to the death of a loved one.
Sebold draws characters with realism and sensitivity. Ruth, a girl who did not know Susie well, seems to have perhaps the closest connection to Susie after her death. Ruth is sensitive and intriguing, a loner who is a deep thinker and a highly intelligent young girl and woman. I like the character of Ray as well, the boy who kissed Susie a few days before her death and who bonded with Ruth after Susie's death. But Lindsey, Susie's younger sister, ends up becoming the strongest character. She does not become angry like her younger brother, or broken like her parents. She triumphs somehow, using her grief to both unearth Susie's killer and later to become a psychiatrist so that she could continue to help people through grief. She marries her high school sweetheart who is indeed an upstanding young man and ends up stronger, more sensitive, more intuitive, as a result of losing her sister. I couldn't help both being angry with and totally understanding the actions of Susie's mother and feeling great sympathy for Susie's father who nearly went insane with his grief yet who rightly knew the identity of Susie's killer long before the police had any evidence. The characters are quite real and are drawn with such a delicate hand that we can't help liking them even if we don't like or approve of their actions.
Even Susie's killer is written to be somewhat sympathetic. While he commits horrible crimes as a serial killer, we learn just enough about him to not see him as an absolute monster. It's interesting, intriguing. Only the finest of writers can create that balance of horror and empathy. Sebold truly is a master, even if she didn't publish her first book until age 39 -- something I sympathize with as I'm working on my first novel at age 42.
I was quite surprised by how much I liked this book and how, once I started it, I couldn't put it down. Usually I'm finishing up the books for our Logos discussions, our monthly literary group at church, the night before we meet, but I finished The Lovely Bones with nearly a week to spare. I can't usually handle violence toward children, but somehow this book wasn't just about Susie's rape and murder -- it was about so much more, and it all intrigued me. So I do wholeheartedly recommend it and do agree with many of the reviewers who believe that The Lovely Bones will become a classic along the lines of Beloved and To Kill a Mockingbird. We will indeed have an interesting discussion on Sunday afternoon....