Drawing on folkloric and religious motifs and ideas, Alice Sebold presents a remarkable, complex, and comforting vision of heaven as the platform from which Susie Salmon, raped and murdered by a neighbor at the age of fourteen, tells her story. It is a heaven that indeed has many “mansions,” one of which is the “wide wide Heaven,” which can provide one’s every desire. It also grants omniscience to the narrator. The word Susie’s grandfather has for the dominant quality of this heaven is “comfort,” and oddly comforting, indeed, is Alice Sebold’s novel because it postulates a vision of heaven that begins with an “intake” level of simplicity that matches the experience level of the fourteen-year-old victim and becomes increasingly complex as Susie watches the changes her death effects on her family and friends over a dozen or so years following her death. Sebold’s conception of heaven is a complex and progressive spirit world in which the departed continue to grow and develop; thus, those individuals who die while children “mature” over the years as they would have done had they not died prematurely. Found in a number of formal religions, this progressive conception of the afterlife is, in the hands of Alice Sebold, a moving yet unsentimental perspective from which to tell the story of every parent’s worst nightmare.
Sebold has asked the unthinkable question, yet one writ large in every day’s news headlines: What if one’s young daughter does not come home for dinner one evening? How do parents and siblings, friends and neighbors, police and the rest of the community react to the growing conviction that the child has been murdered? How do they react when a dog brings home “a body part,” an elbow that, for the police at least, confirms her murder? How do they react to the failure of the police investigation to find the body, despite finding convincing quantities of blood in the dirt of the cornfield? How do they react to the failure to find the killer, to bring him to justice? Only gradually and painfully can the family and the police conclude that the investigation is a murder investigation, that Susie Salmon had been abducted, murdered, and forever obliterated from the face of this Earth. Although other evidence is accumulated, the killer is never arrested, tried, convicted, and executed.
Sebold’s choice to have Susie Salmon tell her story from heaven as the first-person narrator in charge of her own story works brilliantly to satisfy the reader of the truth of her vision of heaven as a complex, multidimensioned spiritual reality, a wide place, a place fashioned after the dearest wishes of departed souls. To support her conception of this story, Sebold weaves together cultural myths, Christian scripture, and deeply embedded folk ideas about revenants (souls who return, usually in corporeal form, to the scenes of their lives and their deaths), who may communicate successfully but rarely clearly with those they have left behind, and who sometimes even exact vengeance upon their murderers. Thus, this novel is a wonderful ghost story. However, because it also embodies a vision of a secular heaven to which spirits journey in stages from the moment of their death and are granted in some way the righteous desires of their hearts, the novel is also a complex meditation on those desires, including the desire for retribution.
In Susie’s case, the desire for knowledge is paramount. She wants to learn all that she had not been able to learn in her short time on Earth, the knowledge that living brings of love, sex, work, thought, and family, to grow fully through the whole range of life’s experiences. Franny, her intake counselor, herself murdered by a wife abuser, assures her that that option is not available (an assertion that Susie will later test with startling consequences). At first, her heaven is that mansion to which female murder victims go, shaped in the familiar forms of school grounds and buildings where her heavenly growth begins. She and Holly, her best friend in heaven, discover that just about anything one can desire is available if desired enough and if one understands why one desires it. She and Holly realize, for instance, that Franny reminds them both very much of their mothers because they miss their mothers intensely. Susie’s second desire is to observe, at least, the whole lives she has left behind on Earth so that she and her companion can pretend better, a wish that is granted, thus making the omniscient possibilities of this narrative point of view credible as well as functional.
The ultimate embodiment of Susie’s wish is to return in physical form, at least for a few moments, to permit her to make love with Ray Singh years after her murder. She does so, “borrowing” the body of Ruth Connors, a classmate against whom she had “brushed” on her way out of life. That connection gives Ruth her life’s calling to write the lives of female victims and suggests also the power of love to transcend mortality. Sebold’s conception of heaven is not a place of “gritty reality” but a place where one has fun. It is also a place from which Susie can continue to see how, sometimes at great cost, the relationships and the sometimes tenuous connections among her friends and family are made and developed in the years following her disappearance and the ongoing consequences of her life and death for those still living. These relationships are the “lovely bones” of the novel’s title, the armature on which Susie herself grows in knowledge and acceptance to develop the figures of Sebold’s themes.
Sebold avoids the pitfall of sentimentality by managing the tone and focusing on Susie’s reports of the psychological and physical effects of her murder on her family, on her classmates, on Detective Fenerman, and on the killer. For instance, in the character of Ruth Connors, poet and fearless and compulsive walker throughout Manhattan, Sebold focuses on identifying and commemorating all those women and children who were murdered or abused. Ruth is compelled to locate the places where these crimes occurred and to write the names of all such victims in her journal, doing “important work,” Susie tells us, “work that most people on Earth were too frightened even to contemplate” but which her “fans in heaven” cheer on. As Susie watches the lives she left behind, she also remembers when she and Ray Singh nearly but not quite kissed and they secretly witnessed Ruth Connors being scolded for drawing nudes that were too realistic for her art teacher’s comfort and that revealed her talent to be much greater than that of her art teacher.
Susie’s family members remember her in various ways as they deal with the intense pain, implacable and pervasive, that her murder generates. Susie’s mother Abigail in her pain withdraws from her husband, has a brief affair with Fenerman, and flees to the West Coast, working in a winery for several years and returning only when she learns of her husband’s stress- induced heart attack, thus reuniting with him eight years later. Jack is overcome by the loss of his daughter and obsessed with finding proof that Mr. Harvey is a viable suspect. Each day, when his consciousness wakes him, Jack’s guilt seeps in, poisoning his relationship with his wife and his other children, Lindsey and Buckley. His actions are those of a father deeply attached to his daughter and overwhelmed by loss and guilt. Thus, he is acutely sensible to “intimations” of her presence and of his culpability. The visions, sightings, and intuitions that Jack, Buckley, Ruth, Ray, and Lindsey experience are the results of Susie’s efforts to communicate with them. The police, however, require “hard evidence,” and Jack’s attempts to find it are interpreted as irrational at best and illegal in law, marking him in the minds of some as a dangerous and suspicious person. He pesters Fenerman to treat Mr. Harvey as a suspect to such an extent that the beleaguered detective orders him to quit calling and to cease in his attempts to investigate the case himself.
Susie also watches as Lindsey works hard to develop her identity as a young woman in her own right, not merely a living version of her dead sister. Helping her along this path are the attentions of Samuel Heckler, who gives Lindsay a present on the first Christmas after Susie’s death and receives a kiss from Lindsey in return. Susie in her heaven feels the electricity of the kiss and is “almost alive again.” Buckley, her four-year-old brother, is kept from the truth, so he continues to ask, “Where is Susie?” As Sam and Lindsey exchange presents, kiss, and begin their healing and life-long connection, Susie’s father finds a way to tell Buckley that his sister is dead. Taken during the first Christmas after Susie’s death (Christmas being the commemoration of the birth of Christ and thus a subtle promise of immortality), each of these moves begins the healing for Susie’s siblings and her father, but it will be a lengthy process and different for each person.
Learning that Mr. Harvey is her father’s prime suspect, Lindsey conspires with Jack to enter Harvey’s house and find evidence to support their suspicions. She is nearly caught by Harvey, who sees her escaping into the trees and knows he is discovered. Although Harvey immediately leaves town, Lindsey’s daring effort causes Harvey’s life to spin out of control and enables her to reunite with her father so that they can get on with their own lives after a fashion. Buckley, for instance, will, when he is in the seventh grade, develop a garden near the house, not exactly a “secret garden” but one that allows Susie to signal him by making the entire garden bloom. At the end, years later, through Susie’s omniscient witness, readers get to see Mr. Harvey, the serial rapist and her murderer, tumbled into deep snow, not to be found for several months. Nonetheless, justice so long delayed and achieved anonymously is denied for his victims and their families.
Sebold’s vision of how the healing process progresses in different ways for each life relies upon a body of traditional belief, customs, and images, including newborns being given the names of the dead and the seasonal resurrections of gardens. Susie continues on her own journey of progression and exploration, returning occasionally to look in on the family members who are now reunited in her absence but who find her manifested in whatever way they want her to be.
Sources for Further Study
Book: The Magazine for the Reading Life 21 (July/August, 2002): 64.
Booklist 98 (May 1, 2002): 1510.
Library Journal 127 (May 15, 2002): 127.
New Statesman 15 (August 19, 2002): 39.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (July 14, 2002): 14.
Publishers Weekly 249 (June 17, 2002): 40.
Seventeen 61 (July, 2002): 152.
Time 160 (July 1, 2002): 62.