A Novel By Alice Sebold
Little, Brown: 330 pp., $21.95
Holding On And Letting Go
By Paula L. Woods, July 7, 2003, Los Angeles Times
The mere whisper of their names is painful—Polly Klaas,
Danielle van Dam, Elizabeth Smart, Shanta Johnson—for they
represent a parent's unspeakable heartache and a nation's
vicarious nightmare. They are the little girls, and girls
are most at risk for such mayhem. Some eventually are found
dead; others simply disappear. We read their stories, hear
the soundbites and wonder: What really happened to these
lost girls? How on Earth do their families survive the horror?
How would we bear such a tragedy in our own households?
They are questions to which we seldom find answers, turning
back ultimately, gratefully, to our happier-by-comparison
Alice Sebold, however, boldly steps into that unimaginable
territory in her first novel, "The Lovely Bones."
Sebold's guide on the journey is 14-year-old Susie Salmon—"like
the fish"—who tells us she was murdered in 1973, "before
kids of all races and genders started appearing on milk
cartons ... back when people believed things like that didn't
Susie narrates from her own personal heaven, an in-between
place where "life is a perpetual yesterday," where
she gets a sax-playing Vietnamese roommate and where her
no-nonsense intake counselor, Franny, eases Susie's self-doubts
with a tart "Don't mull it over. It does no good. You're
dead and you have to accept it."
Yet acceptance is exactly what Susie cannot find, and it
is that tension that Sebold, a resident of Long Beach and
a graduate of UC Irvine's writing program, so marvelously
weaves throughout the novel. Susie relives, in chilling
detail, her encounter with her killer and follows his movements
after her murder. She longs for Ray Singh, a boy who had
a crush on her and with whom she shared an almost-kiss.
She lingers at school with her classmates, especially Ruth
Connors, a girl she barely knew in life who happened to
be standing in her path when her "soul shrieked past
Earth." But most of all, Susie hovers heavily over
the lives of her family, anxiously watching her father become
obsessed with finding her killer, her mother's slow withdrawal
from her family and marriage, her younger sister's desperate
attempts at toughness, her baby brother's lonely confusion.
At times Susie's yearning for the living is so visceral,
so acute, that she tries to reach out to them and succeeds:
casting her image into a pile of broken glass, communicating
with her brother, making a life-changing appearance to Ruth
and Ray. At other times, she is a cosmic witness to their
pain and anguish, trapped in her inability to be neither
on Earth nor in heaven as surely as the ships are trapped
in her father's glass bottles or her beloved penguin is
imprisoned in its perfect snow globe world.
Susie's poignant observations of the living and the chronicle
of her own afterlife make "The Lovely Bones" a
strange and beautiful amalgam of novelistic styles. At times,
when Susie recounts the actions of her killer, the novel
reads like a thriller, sweeping us along as we see the killer's
dreams, feel his overwhelming longings to kill again, experience
her father and sister's obsession with linking him to the
crime. Yet at other times it is a shattering family drama,
the tale of four survivors broken by unspeakable horror
who learn to knit their grief and anger into new connections,
"sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but
often magnificent." And, yet again, it is an oddly
affecting coming-of-age novel, the story of a girl who travels
from the land of the living, through the in-between space
of her personal heaven, to a "wide wide Heaven"
where she can finally let go, "hold the world without
me in it."
Indeed, letting go is a leitmotif of "The Lovely Bones,"
one that Sebold evokes with a sly inventiveness and lyrical
power that are deeply moving and ultimately redemptive.
With a well-balanced mix of heavenly humor, Earthbound suspense
and keen observation of both sides of Susie's in-between,
Sebold teaches us much about living and dying, holding on
and letting go, as messy and imperfect and beautiful as
the processes can be—and has created a novel that is painfully
fine and accomplished, one which readers will have their
own difficulties relinquishing, long after the last page