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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Lovely Bones

Reviewed: January 4, 2006
By: Alice Seabold
Publisher: Back Bay Books
328 pages, $19.95

“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”

I haven’t encountered an opening like that since Robertson Davies’s Murder and Walking Spirits, so I was curious as to how this would go. After all, having your first person narrator as the spirit of a dead person looking on events from the vantage point of a very personal heaven is an unusual way to present a story.

Susie was raped, murdered and dismembered by an ordinary seeming man who lived in their recently established suburban neighbourhood. When it began, all anyone knew was that she was missing - and then, three days later, a local dog found her elbow. At first that was all. Later there were some belongings and the tasseled hat Mr. Harvey had used to smother her cries for help down under the ground, in the cave that he had built in the cornfield for this special purpose.

Susie went to Heaven, which turned out to be a very individual sort of arrangement. It was populated - sometimes - by people who shared some of her hopes and dreams about what it might be. They had overlapping heavens, but sometimes they were alone. At fourteen, Susie had had dreams of living in a nicer house, senior high school, and a nice park with a gazebo. From her gazebo she could watch her family, her friends, and her killer.

The story roves about in time a bit. There are things we need to know from before the murder, and we get those from Susie’s memories. There are important events after the murder, and we see these all from that unusual viewpoint, that of the omniscient first person narrator, who can follow anyone’s path, see everything, and even know what people are thinking.

Alice Seabold has some particular insights into this kind of a extreme situation, since she was herself raped when she was 18, in an alley where the victim just before her had been cut to bits. She knows about pain and loss and what it can do to people, and much of The Lovely Bones is about just that.

Susie’s father somehow knows, right from the beginning, who did it, but there is no proof, for Mr. Harvey is an experienced killer who has been learning his trade for years and is at the height of his powers when he takes Susie. The police can’t do anything without a clue, and Ray Salmon dives deep into depression.

Ruth Salmon reacts in other ways, pushing all the pain away from her, diverting herself however she can, having an affair, ultimately rejecting her family after a couple of years and running away to California. It will be eight years before she returns.

Her vain, alcoholic mother rises to the occasion and moves in with her son-in-law to help raise the kids.

Lindsey is a year younger than Susie, and is the person Susie spends the most time with as a spirit, riding as a sort of ectoplasmic shotgun through the many important experiences Lindsey has over the next ten years. Lindsey is quite a young lady, and finally produces some of the proof the police need.

Buckley is just three years old when his sister dies, and doesn’t have the advantage of ever having known his parents when they were fully functioning adults. Buck can sometimes see Susie when she’s watching the others. He grows up close to his dad, but angry that there is a part of him he can never reach. As for his mother, the reception she gets when she returns after Ray’s heart attack is probably the least Buck could have done.

Three other very important characters is this story are Ray Singh, Susie’s first teen crush and kiss; Ruth, a gifted girl who is brushed by Susie’s spirit as it flees her dying body; and Samuel, who is Lindsey’s first and only true love from the moment he gives her his heart less than a year after the murder. These are all strong people and are all affected by what has happened.

It’s hard to resolve the central tragedy in a life when there is no closure. Mr. Harvey is eventually identified by circumstantial evidence as the killer, but he manages to escape and is never brought to earthly justice (the next to last page will tell you why I put it that way, but no peeking!) and they never find the rest of Susie’s body. This leaves everyone unsettled and at odds with each other as to how they should cope with their loss.

Susie has issues too. She’d like to see Harvey punished. She’d like to know what might have happened between her and Ray. She’d like to get past being fourteen forever. Her heaven is a safe, special place, but it’s not bliss, and sometimes she’s frustrated. There are indications that this is just a stage in the after death experience, and that both the living and the dead have to learn to let go of things before they can move on.

The title isn’t about Susie’s bones, nor about the bones of all the missing neighbourhood animals that were found in Mr. Harvey’s house. It’s an interesting metaphor which is used only once in the book, near the end, and it will make a lot of sense by the time you get to it. At least, I thought it did.

My thanks to the three senior class English students who reviewed this book this semester. They made me want to read it.

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