So this is what heaven is like. It comes bottled in a blue drink of a book and reads like a fairy tale. Alice Sebold will be your guide. The Lovely Bones will be the Bible. And everyone from Jonathan Franzen to Anna Quindlen has formed a choir to sing the praises of what could have been another missed-by-most, midlist first novel.
It’s winter in Pennsylvania, 1973. Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon has just been raped and murdered by a neighbor. She’ll narrate the events of her death and her family’s changed lives from up above. And it shouldn’t work. The juxtaposition of a child’s violent murder and the gauzy afterlife that awaits shouldn’t sit side by side so seamlessly. But the pairing works to haunting effect, well captured by the book’s title itself. Here is something sweet and pure that knows of hell on earth.
”When I first entered heaven I thought everyone saw what I saw,” says Susie, killed before she could leave the junior-high incubator behind. ”That in everyone’s heaven there were soccer goalposts in the distance and lumbering women throwing shot put and javelin. That all the buildings were like suburban northeast high schools built in the 1960s…. These were my dreams on Earth.” She befriends Holly, a Vietnamese girl whose heaven consists of school days spent studying Seventeen and Vogue. The two miss their mothers, so their intake counselor is Franny, a social worker for the homeless in her past life. ”In Franny’s heaven, she served and was rewarded by results and gratitude.” There are gazebos and daffodils and gowns and dogs, but not every wish can be fulfilled. ”I could not have what I wanted most: Mr. Harvey dead and me living.”
Harvey, a man of ”wild and bottomless lust,” killed six girls before he got to Susie. She sees the crimes replayed and meets his other victims. She observes his perfected routine of innocence and helpfulness with the police, but can’t finger him. She watches him leer at the remaining Salmon girl, her younger sister Lindsey, but can’t slap aside his gaze. ”Part of me wished swift vengeance, wanted my father to turn into the man he could never have been — a man violent in rage. That’s what you see in movies, that’s what happens in the books people read.”
Not this one. While there are some nice moments of chase and suspense, ”The Lovely Bones” never degenerates into a crime scene investigation, with ”aha!”s and easy justice. The real mystery is how Susie’s family, limbs and hearts leaden with grief, will learn to live with her death. Her young brother Buckley can only equate his sister’s absence with a missing Monopoly piece. Lindsey takes showers in the dark, to avoid the mirrors that reflect back her sister’s face. Their mother shuts down and checks out, finds ”a doorway out of her ruined heart, in merciful adultery.” And the father shrinks from ”the hand of God pressing down on him, saying, You were not there when your daughter needed you.”
One loud clang of a misstep temporarily ruins the mood. Without saying too much, expect a quick but unfortunate scene that inevitably calls to mind a certain movie moment between Whoopi Goldberg and Patrick Swayze. But, like Susie said, heaven isn’t perfect.
A girl is killed; a family suffers. You might think, who wants to read about such ugliness and pain? And this is where Sebold has worked wonders. Part of the book’s appeal is its marvelous pacing; it can be gulped down, devoured in one long evening. Part of it is the dreamy safety net of Sebold’s words: ”You don’t notice the dead leaving when they really choose to leave you. You’re not meant to. At most you feel them as a whisper or the wave of a whisper undulating down.” And part of it is that she knows of what she writes. Sebold’s 1999 memoir ”Lucky” described her rape when she was a freshman at Syracuse University, in a tunnel where, she later found out, a teenage girl had been murdered. She survived. Recovery is an extraordinary thing.