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Lovely Bones is a story about change and growth, life and death, families and neighbours. Set in a small town in the USA the book chronicles the changes that occur between 1973 and the mid eighties following the brutal murder of Susie Salmon.
One of the most intriguing things about the book is that it manages to transcend the clunkiness of a first person tale that ends "And then I died", not least by opening in almost that way:
"My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."
It is a frank account, told in first person but with a clever twist. In using a main character who is dead already, each and every character she examines and talks about is explained along with their motives and their feelings because death allows Susie to see the world and everyone in it in full. She can feel their fear, understand their wonderings and explain why they act as they do. It's a unique and telling perspective; it doesn't leave the reader suffering from a confusion of switching narrative in order to explain why things happen, at the same time it allows for a much more involved and immediate feeling than that of an anonymous narrator.
At the centre of the story is Susie's own family, sister Lyndsey, little brother Buckley, and her parents. The rifts and the changing dynamic of the small family are carefully laid out along with the lives of those they are closest to: Lyndsey's new boyfriend, Samuel, and Susie's grandmother being key characters. But it is also about the peripheral characters. Ray Singh, the boy who had a crush on Susie when she died, Ruth the misfit girl who had shared a few moments of friendship with Susie not long before her death, Len the policeman investigating the murder.
Everybody changes as the story goes on. Grief stricken and vengeful, some of the earliest changes are obviously directly related to Susie's death and the murder investigation. It is more than that, though, the tale is a wonderful tableau of family life, a snapshot of the age in which it is set. We see incidents entirely unrelated to Susie herself as everybody ages and the community goes on despite the gap where once Susie Salmon stood. Susie watches, an observer but not impartial, and she notes not only what happens to those she loved and knew but how they grow. Habits that change, events that change them.
"The most amazing thing was that my mther went to bed and left the dirty dishes in the sink."
"However haphazardly, everyone I'd known was growing up."
"... and then she said something that no one, least of all my father, could have argued with: Plans change."
The story uses imagery an awful lot, largely based in nature. Details of the weather, of flowers and gardens and seasons that move on and even her father's snowglobe, these are all woven into the pages of Susie's story without grating or seeming overly symbolic but still they serve as a reminder of life and death and growth. Somebody likens the dying to snowflakes, the dark of the night on which Susie is taken is an enduring feature, Susie is represented on earth by the daffodil. It's cleverly done and extremely effective as it sits alongside gruesome details of the rape of Susie, the pain of loss everybody goes through and the dashed hope fading from the hope that her family hold onto: "Nothing is ever certain".
Susie shares with us the details of many characters, people she knew, people she never will know and those she was close to. Each of them is painted as a full person with hopes, motives and histories. What is perhaps surprising is that she tells us just as much about her killer, we see what his drives are, how he feels and how he flounders as the murder trail leads towards him. Nobody is perfect in this story. The mother abandons people she shouldn't at a critical time, the father is driven by rage and harms innocents by mistake, Susie's sister snaps at people and withdraws when she finds herself becoming "the sister who didn't die" and as little four year old Buckley grows older he demonstrates an intense anger towards the situation he finds himself in. It's real, it's detailed, it's incidental detail and yet it drives the story towards its closure, a point at which everything is different but not necessarily worse by any means.
Some critics have claimed that the story drags, but I found that the details of daily life kept me interested, particularly with such a range of characters being examined. Others say that it is unrealistic in parts. With that I find a more sympathetic stance as the details of Susie's heaven are a little odd and the way she affects those still living seems a little contrived at times. There is a section towards the end of the book where these effects are incredibly pronounced as Susie fulfils a wish - this seemed to be a step too far and I think the story might have stood stronger without this. All the same, it is excusable, for the riches of the book, the sensitive and touching details of life set against a background of tale of the horrific murder, make up for its minor flaws.
Stylistically, Sebold has written a story that has been described as a "cocktail of David Lynch and Judy Blume," by Time magazine. This is not inaccurate - the macabre side of Lynch's work and the oddness of a dead girl telling the story from heaven are held together well by the narrative excitable babbling of a fourteen year old explaining the magic of her first kiss and watching her sister start to shave her legs and take make up tips from her grandmother. It's gritty but fascinating, hard and cold in detail but full of warmth and humour in the affection it shows for the character ensemble. To my mind, it's very much like a grown up version of Lois Duncan's excellent books for teenagers in which the protagonists are often teens and the story essentially based in the supernatural.
This is a great story and very well told - recommended.
Great review. I truly truly loved this book!!! I don't understand how anyone couldn't like it. I've read it so much, the book's not in it's best state! I heard that it's being produced for the big screen. Can't wait.
gwlith_y_wawr 27.05.2004 22:16
v good review... doesn't sound like my kinda thing tho :-(
fantasybeliever 25.05.2004 10:46
I've seen such mixed reviews of this book, I can't decide whether I want to read it or not! Cheers. Christina ;-) x