The Lovely Bones is the first novel by the American author Alice Sebold that was published in 2002 and that followed her memoir Lucky (1999). The novel is narrated by a teenage girl, who watches life from her own personal heaven, after being brutally raped and murdered by her neighbor. In the book, Alice Sebold deals with the lasting damaging effects of such a tragedy on the victim’s family and friends, as well as with her own experience of sexual and physical violence, and explores the themes of heaven and the afterlife.
The novel is set in Pennsylvania, 1973, and focuses on the aftermath of the murder of a fourteen-year-old girl named Susie Salmon. On her way home from school, Susie is lured into an underground den by her family’s neighbor George Harvey, a thirty-six-year-old man, who then rapes and murders her, before dismembering her body and dumping the remains into a sinkhole (Sebold 2015). After that, her spirit ascends into her personal heaven, from where she is able to observe her family and friends, and the events that followed her disappearance.
The concept of heaven in The Lovely Bones is ultimately different from that concept in Christianity, despite having some similarities, as noted by Arrida (2013). Arguably, the most important distinction is that, in the book, there is no mention of God or any other superior being, as well as the lack of angels, demons, and other similar religious imagery. As described in the novel, it is more reminiscent of the mundane suburbs, rather than a mysterious and magical place that most people think of when they think about the afterlife. All the people whom Susie meets there coexist in their own personal versions of heaven, and their heavens expand as they interact with each other and develop relationships. However, Arrida (2013, p. 3) suggests that Susie’s personal heaven is not, in fact, the true heaven, but rather an in-between place, and she has to let go and “redeem herself” in order to transcend it.
The novel also focuses on Susie’s family and how her murder affected them in different ways. Much like Susie herself, who is confined in her personal heaven, the family seems to exist in some kind of transitional state, unable to move on. Abigail Salmon, Susie’s mother, starts an affair with Len Fenerman, the police detective investigating the case, and eventually leaves her husband and her family, and moves across the country to California (Sebold 2015). However, it appears that the bond between Susie’s father and her siblings, Lindsey and Buckley, only grows stronger. Jack Salmon is perhaps one of the best-written characters in the novel. Hanson (2016, para. 7) remarks, “After his daughter’s death, he is consumed by guilt, wishing that he could have saved her. His love, this unrelenting force, is what ultimately leads to Susie’s acceptance in her heaven”. The love and the strength of the family are one of the big themes in the book. According to Hanson (2016, para. 12), “it is not Sebold’s intention to write about murder”, but rather about love, life, happiness, and personal growth. Susie experiences all of that vicariously through watching her family and friends.
The Lovely Bones deals with a range of very heavy subjects, such as violence and child abuse, trauma and survivor’s guilt. It also explores the idea of the afterlife, which is something that probably all people have pondered in their life. In my opinion, despite the dark premise of the book, it leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope and a desire to see the good in life, rather than the bad.
Arrida, R 2013, ‘Maturation beyond the grave: a narratology reading to Susie Salmon in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones’, SKRIPSI JurusanSastraInggris-FakultasSastra, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 1-12.
Hanson, K 2016, ‘Literary lens: “The lovely bones”, The Review, Web.
Sebold, 2015, The lovely bones, Pan Macmillan, London.