DEATH is a “personalized” heaven.
And for Susie Salmon, the 14-year-old murder victim in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (Little Brown, 2002), entering heaven is like peeping through the holes of anxiety to watch her beloved family and friends tread the path of acceptance following her untimely demise.
Sexually abused before meeting her end, Susie’s case is typical of crimes–ala St. Maria Goretti–perpetrated against women her age at a time when few people “still believe things like that could happen,” giving a hint of the civility and sobriety of the public toward such unimaginable offenses.
Her murderer is Mr. Harvey, who happens to be their neighbor. He chances upon Susie, who has taken a shortcut in a cornfield one snowy night on her way home on Dec. 6, 1973. Mr. Harvey invites her to an underground “hiding place” where he later asks Susie to take off her clothes. But Susie declines and so a bitter struggle ensues. She is then overpowered and forced to lie flat with the sweat-dripped body of the old man on top of her, willfully satisfying his lust.
After feasting on Susie’s innocence, Mr. Harvey mischievously asks the girl if she loves him. She says yes, and Mr. Harvey stabs her to death.
On her third day in heaven, Susie meets Holly and they become good friends. Franny, her “intake counselor” and a meritorious resident of heaven, helps her to adjust to the conditions of her eternal abode.
In heaven, Susie is filled with nostalgia as well as familial concern. She is reminded of her life on earth and this prompts her to look back. On earth, the Salmon parents are troubled by the disappearance of their eldest daughter.
It is with shock that they learn from a detective named Fenerman the fact of Susie’s violation and murder.
Estrangement sets in since Susie’s younger sister Lindsay looks like her. People seem to confuse her with Susie so that she starts to lose her identity and becomes a victim of social prejudice. Meanwhile, paternal disregard pushes Susie’s four-year-old brother to spending his days in aimless wandering on the streets.
But when almost everything appears irreparable for Susie’s family, his father boldly accepts the truth. He recovers from his grief and takes charge of the situation and holds together the family.
As for their mother who gave up a scholarly life to raise the family, Susie’s bitter end leaves a gash of doubt on her ability to protect her children. But at the end of the day, her moral astuteness helps her outgrow the pains of losing her daughter. Drawing strength from each other, the family comes to a realization that Susie is gone forever and they should all come together to boldly face a world of uncertainty.
Interestingly enough, Susie, despite suffering a heinous crime, does not exhibit any tinge of loathing and bitterness toward her offender. This emotional detachment speaks well of the writer’s ability to avoid the circumstantial drawbacks that may portray the main character as the thematic center of the story.
Although Susie would apologetically envy the teens her age that are now having a life of their own, still, she would rather shower her concern for her family, particularly her siblings. In sum, the Lovely Bones is about innocent abandon, custodial fixation and self-resiliency knitted closely together by misery which seems insurmountable at first blush.
At the end of the story, optimism replaces nostalgia in Susie’s heart as she begins to speak of the promise of togetherness in a heaven of atypical proportions, one which grows out of individual desire.
Employing a past-forward type of narration, the author succeeds in rendering the story with a mild suspense, given Susie’s penchant for delaying the present storyline involving her family in order to recall her life on earth. This then gives the reader some insight about the conditions that reshape Susie’s character as the newest tenant of heaven.
The author also does well in identifying loneliness as the cause of man’s fear of death, in Susie’s image of how a person comes to grip with mortality as she tries to reach out for her family through memory and emotion.
More than watching from the couch of after-life, Susie transforms her heaven into a bulwark of happy moments in order to sensitively lead her family toward healing.
Overall, the author satisfactorily portrays death as a two-way street. The novel tells of Mr. Harvey stalking a young girl as the object of yet another sexual impulse. But as he follows the girl, Mr. Harvey meets his end under the hollow chunks of ice that crashes on him, which, far from typifying a vengeful undertone, serves as poetic justice. It is not so sure if Mr. Harvey will enjoy the same heaven that Susie experiences upon her departure from earth.
At the end of the story, Susie depicts her family now as a fully recovered crop of individuals who, whenever thrilled by her memory, “keep sharing when they felt me.”
Death, as the “oxygen we breathe,” when viewed in its positive dimension, can be an omnipotent source of unbridled inspiration.
Montage Vol. 10 • December 2006