Wednesday, 14 July 2004

Alice Sebold: The Lovely Bones (2002)

Edition: Picador, 2003
Review number: 1250

It would have been easy for this novel to be saccharine and sentimental; I picked it up and discarded on the assumption that it would be before a copy was pressed on me by someone who had enjoyed it. Generally, it is not, and the moments where there is sentimentality - a hospital scene near the end, for example - are handled well enough to be endearing rather than sickening.

The story is of a raped and murdered fourteen year old girl (Susie Salmon), told as she watches the way her death affects her family and friends over the years from heaven. Watching them is her main occupation; Sebold portrays heaven is a place where desires are granted, and that is Susie's greatest desire, apart from the one thing that is forbidden, making real contact with the living. Since this is the principal ambition shared by almost all the dead, at least at first, this leaves heaven a curious, rather nondescript place (especially as inhabitants interact only as their dream worlds overlap in some way). Of course, Susie as a victim of an unsolved murder, is even more keen than most to communicate - even if only to say, "It was him!"

The novel of which I was reminded by The Lovely Bones, in terms of genre if nothing else, was Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Both are basically murder mysteries from unusual points of view; Agatha Christie writes from that of the murderer (though not revealing this until the end), while Alice Sebold turns this on its head and writes from the point of view of the victim - who reveals the killer's identity right at the outset. Perhaps the similarities are not really there, as the styles are very different, but at some fundamental level the fact that they are both about unusual ways to look at a murder seems to link the two novels.(From a stylistic point of view, someone like Carol Shields would be a better equivalent to Sebold.)

The most admirable trait of The Lovely Bones is the way in which Sebold is able to deal with such strongly emotive subjects as paedophilia and child murder without seeming any of crass, insensitive, or (the other side of the coin) sentimental. This partly comes from observation - the way that the various members of the Salmon family cope or fail to cope is believeable - but it also is due to high quality writing. This is certainly a novel I would recommend.

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