When you kill off your narrator in the first 10 pages of a novel—and tell readers who the killer is—you'd better have one compelling story up your sleeve. Alice Sebold does.
"I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973," Susie Salmon tells us in the second sentence of The Lovely Bones. She shows us who did it—a neighbor everyone thinks is "weird"—and describes the horrible scene, a brutal assault and dismemberment in an underground hideout in a bleak winter cornfield. Sebold's triumph is in making Susie's voice so immediately compelling that we don't want to let her go, even after she's dead. We want to know what happens next. So does Susie.
From up in what she calls "my heaven," Susie watches the repercussions of her death among her friends and family. She sees her broken parents crumble away from each other, her younger sister harden her heart, her classmates cling to each other for comfort. She watches her murderer in the calm aftermath of his awful deed. She longs for the one boy she's ever kissed, knowing she'll never touch him again. She misses her dog. She aches for her parents and siblings, yearning to comfort them but unable to interfere. In her heaven, she's granted all her simplest desires—she has friends and a mother-figure—and she delights in her ability to see everything and everyone in the world. Observing her sister one Christmas, she says, "Lindsey had a cute boy in the kitchen. . . . I was suddenly privy to everything. She never would have told me any of this stuff. . . . She kissed him; it was glorious. I was almost alive again."
But watching the world without being among the living isn't enough for Susie. She's 14 forever, and the pain of her unfulfilled promise infuses her voice as she watches her younger brother and sister growing into roles she'll never play. Still, Susie's no wispy, thinly drawn ghost; like nearly every other character in the book, she's a remarkable, complex person who has as much humor and kindness as grief.
In the end, what Sebold has accomplished is to find her own inventive way of expressing the universal alienation and powerlessness we all feel, trapped in our own small worlds apart from each other. More than that, she has convinced us that, through love and hope and generosity, these things can be overcome.
Becky Ohlsen is a writer in Portland, Oregon. Copyright 2002 BookPage Reviews
Kirkus Reviews 2002 May #1
An extraordinary, almost-successful debut that treats sensational material with literary grace, narrated from heaven by the victim of a serial killer and pedophile."My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." These opening lines in Susie's thoroughly engaging voice show the same unblinking and straightforward charm that characterized Sebold's acclaimed memoir, Lucky (2002)-the true story of the author's surviving a brutal rape when she was a college freshman. Now, the fictional Susie recounts her own rape and-less lucky than the author-murder in a Pennsylvania suburb at the hands of a neighbor. Susie's voice is in exquisite control when describing the intensity and complexity of her family's grief, her longing for Ray Singh-the first and only boy to kiss her-and the effect her death has on Ruth, the lonely outsider whose body her soul happened to brush while rising up to a personal, whimsical, yet utterly convincing heaven. Rapt delight in the story begins to fade, though, as the narrative moves farther away in time from Susie's death and grows occasionally forced or superficial as Susie watches what happens over the next decade to everyone she knew on earth, including her killer. By the time Susie's soul enters Ruth's body long enough to make love to Ray, the author's ability to convince the reader has flagged. The closing third forces its way toward affirmative closure, and even the language changes tone: "The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future."Works beautifully for so long as Susie simply tells the truth, then falters when the author goes for bigger truths about Love and Life. Still, mostly mesmerizing and deserving of the attention it's sure to receive. Copyright Kirkus 2002 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved
Library Journal Reviews 2002 March #2
The heroine of Sebold's first novel (after the memoir Lucky) is already dead, but that doesn't keep her from talking. Teenager Susie Salmon looks down benevolently from Heaven as her family heals and her murderer is run to ground. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2002 May #2
Sebold, whose previous book, Lucky, told of her own rape and the subsequent trial of her attacker, here offers a powerful first novel, narrated by Susie Salmon, in heaven. Brutally raped and murdered by a deceptively mild-mannered neighbor, Susie begins with a compelling description of her death. During the next ten years, she watches over her family and friends as they struggle to cope with her murder. She observes their disintegrating lives with compassion and occasionally attempts, sometimes successfully, to communicate her love to them. Although the lives of all who knew her well are shaped by her tragic death, eventually her family and friends survive their pain and grief. In Sebold's heaven, Susie continues to grow emotionally. She learns that human existence is "the helplessness of being alive, the dark bright pity of being human feeling as you went, groping in corners and opening your arms to light all of it part of navigating the unknown." Sebold's compelling and sometimes poetic prose style and unsparing vision transform Susie's tragedy into an ultimately rewarding novel. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/02.] Cheryl L. Conway, Univ. of Arkansas Lib., Fayetteville Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2002 June #3
Sebold's first novel after her memoir, Lucky is a small but far from minor miracle. Sebold has taken a grim, media-exploited subject and fashioned from it a story that is both tragic and full of light and grace. The novel begins swiftly. In the second sentence, Sebold's narrator, Susie Salmon, announces, "I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." Susie is taking a shortcut through a cornfield when a neighbor lures her to his hideaway. The description of the crime is chilling, but never vulgar, and Sebold maintains this delicate balance between homely and horrid as she depicts the progress of grief for Susie's family and friends. She captures the odd alliances forged and the relationships ruined: the shattered father who buries his sadness trying to gather evidence, the mother who escapes "her ruined heart, in merciful adultery." At the same time, Sebold brings to life an entire suburban community, from the mortician's son to the handsome biker dropout who quietly helps investigate Susie's murder. Much as this novel is about "the lovely bones" growing around Susie's absence, it is also full of suspense and written in lithe, resilient prose that by itself delights. Sebold's most dazzling stroke, among many bold ones, is to narrate the story from Susie's heaven (a place where wishing is having), providing the warmth of a first-person narration and the freedom of an omniscient one. It might be this that gives Sebold's novel its special flavor, for in Susie's every observation and memory of the smell of skunk or the touch of spider webs is the reminder that life is sweet and funny and surprising,. Agent, Henry Dunow. (July 3) Forecast: Sebold's memoir, Lucky, was the account of her rape in 1981, at Syracuse University. It is, of course, impossible to read The Lovely Bones without considering the memoir, but the novel moves Sebold effortlessly into literary territory. A long list of writers including Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen blurb The Lovely Bones, and booksellers should expect the novel to move quickly; the early buzz has been considerable. Foreign rights have been sold in England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Spain and Sweden, with film rights to Film Four. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal Reviews 2002 October
Adult/High School-"I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973," says Susie Salmon in this intriguing novel. Teens will immediately be drawn into this account of a girl who was raped and killed, and tells her story from "heaven." She realizes gradually that she is in an interim heaven until she can let go of her earthly concerns. The place is like school with Seventeen for a textbook and no teachers. On Earth, her mother needs to leave the family for a time, her sister seems to have Susie constantly in her thoughts, her young brother grows into a pensive preteen, and her grief-stricken father spends much of his time seeking out the murderer, even after it seems that the police have given up. The narrator observes the disparate ways her family and friends cope, and finally sees that they are resolving their grief as "the lovely bones" of their lives knit themselves around the empty space that was her life. While the subject matter is grim, the telling is light and frequently humorous-Susie remains 14 even though 8 years pass in the other characters' lives. This novel will encourage discussion. There is a slight feeling of magical realism, but there is grounding in real adolescence.-Susan H. Woodcock, Fairfax County Public Library, Chantilly, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
VOYA Reviews 2002 December
Readers meet fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon on the day she is brutally raped and murdered. Narrating her story from heaven, Susie allows readers to follow along with her the lives of her family and friends, the police detective assigned to her case, and her murderer. Through her eyes, readers see how her death affects everyone close to her, as she watches them grow and change over the next decade. Susie also grows as she learns from those in heaven and from those she is watching. The idyllic atmosphere of heaven contrasts starkly with the lives Susie watches, but her unflinching reporting, even of her murderer's actions, makes her story credible and realistic. Sebold, herself a survivor of a brutal rape, beautifully and poetically tells both a heartrending and a heartwarming story. The violence of the rape and murder takes place in the first ten pages of the book, and from then on, the reader is compelled to listen to Susie's clear, strong voice. Young adult readers will be drawn to Susie because of her honest and forthright vision and reporting of her experiences and those she watches over. Part mystery, part family drama, but all powerful and affecting, this novel is destined to become a classic for both adult and teen readers.-Lynn Evarts. 5Q 4P S A/YA Copyright 2002 Voya Reviews