Alice Sebold’s first novel, The Lovely Bones, was on its 11th US printing by the end of the summer and was sitting at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, a place usually reserved for Michael Crichton or Tom Clancy. The book’s success is a categorial surprise, since literary novels hardly ever reach a mass audience in America; but its subject-matter is so perfectly resonant with the tenor of the times that its appeal is transparent. The book concerns a crime that could not be more horrible, the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl; but its tone is joyful, its message comforting, and its metaphysics unimpeachable in a culture which prides itself on its piety while adhering to an incoherent gospel of personal growth.
The protagonist of The Lovely Bones is a girl called Susie Salmon, who, we learn in the second line of the book, was murdered on 6 December 1973, ‘back when people believed things like that didn’t happen’. The murderer is Mr Harvey, a loner neighbour who discusses fertilisers with Susie’s father and whose border flowers draw the admiration of her mother. Mr Harvey has left a trail of dead girls behind him as he moves from one anonymous suburb to another, and Susie’s turn comes when, walking home from school through a cornfield one day, she runs into him and accepts his invitation to have a look at a bunker which he has dug in the ground and furnished with a battery-powered lamp and a shaving kit. Mr Harvey offers Susie a Coke, tells her she is pretty, asks her if she is a virgin, bars her exit from the bunker, then rapes her. The assault is briefly but graphically depicted (‘I was the mortar, he was the pestle’). Afterwards, Mr Harvey dispatches Susie with a gentle request that she tell him she loves him.
The rape and murder happen in the first chapter; the rest of The Lovely Bones is concerned with the aftermath of Susie’s disappearance. Her body is not immediately discovered, though the police find the knitted cap that her mother made for her and that she refused, on fashion grounds, to wear; Mr Harvey had stuffed it into her mouth to stifle her screams. A body part, an elbow, is recovered, and while her mother persists for a while in the hope that a girl might live on even without her elbow, the family gradually accepts that Susie is never coming home. The police pursue the case, but as time passes and no culprit is found, their pursuit becomes less and less committed. Susie’s parents collapse into private griefs, then fall apart from one another, her father obsessed with solving the crime and her mother having an affair with the investigating detective before abandoning the family for a job in California, the land of forgetting. Susie’s resilient younger sister surpasses her in age and experience, falling in love with a classmate who gives her a heart-shaped pendant and treats her parents with respect. Susie’s brother, Buckley, a small child when Susie is killed, grows up in the long shadow of a sister he doesn’t remember but believes he still sometimes runs into around the house.
The fictional innovation of The Lovely Bones, the stroke that must have writing school graduates everywhere wondering why they didn’t think of it before, is that the book is told from the point of view of the dead Susie: it is a coming of age story told by a character who isn’t of age and never will be. Susie is a bright and ironical observer, even of her own murder: ‘Escape wasn’t a concept I had any real experience with. The worst I’d had to escape was Artie, a strange-looking kid at school whose father was a mortician. He liked to pretend he was carrying a needle full of embalming fluid around with him.’ Though she is frustrated by her inability to console her family or to direct them towards her killer, Susie is in many ways much the same dead as she was alive; like any teenager, her interests and appetites extend to encounters with classmates, flirtation with boys and rivalry with siblings. It’s hardly an original idea that the dead watch over the living; such watchfulness is not, however, usually thought of as spying. ‘Lindsey had a cute boy in the kitchen!’ Susie says at one point while watching her sister. ‘This was news, this was a bulletin – I was suddenly privy to everything. She would never have told me this stuff.’
Susie’s vantage point is a place she refers to as ‘my heaven’, which closely resembles a suburban high school, with playing-fields and kids shooting hoops. In Sebold’s fanciful construction, heaven is the place in which one’s simplest earthly wishes are fulfilled. In Susie’s case, heaven is a near replica of the environment in which she spent her living days, with crucial modifications: ‘There were no teachers in the school. We never had to go inside except for art class . . . The boys did not pinch our backsides or tell us we smelled; our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue.’ She is watched over by a heavenly intake counsellor named Franny, a social worker who arrived in heaven after being shot in the face by the husband of a client, and whose afterlife wish fulfilment consists in looking after girls like Susie. She has a roommate, Holly, another dead teenager, with whom she shares similar tastes: ‘Our heaven had an ice-cream shop where, when you asked for peppermint stick ice cream, no one said, “It’s seasonal.”’
At its strongest, The Lovely Bones is an effective and intimate illustration of the truism that when a child is murdered, the life of a family is shattered. The interminable grief of Susie’s father is particularly tenderly drawn: ‘Before sleep wore off, he was who he used to be. Then, as his consciousness woke, it was as if poison seeped in.’ The gentle delineation of the growing love between Lindsey and her boyfriend, Sam, proves a counterpoint to the lost life of Susie, who has the bittersweet experience of participating, from heaven, in her sister’s growing-up, including Lindsey’s loss of virginity: ‘At 14, my sister sailed away from me into a place I’d never been. In the walls of my sex there was horror and blood, in the walls of hers there were windows.’ Sebold’s writing is both lyrical and grounded, and her narrative moves with impressive assurance between the spheres.
That American readers have become so enchanted by the character of Susie, who manages to be lively even when dead, is no great surprise. The Lovely Bones renews the cliché of the triumph of the human spirit by taking it to its logical extension, in which a particular human spirit, having been literally disembodied, is endowed with sympathetic character traits and an enduring cuteness. Like M. Night Shyamalan’s summer hit movie Signs, The Lovely Bones dwells in the familiar American province where wanton supernaturalism meets all-embracing sentimentality. Susie’s heaven, the reader eventually notices, is curiously godless. Transcendence means acknowledging one’s deepest desires, which are guaranteed to be fulfilled, so long as they don’t involve being brought back to life. Being in heaven is like participating in a not especially intellectually rigorous self-help encounter group. It’s also oddly consumerist: when Susie tells Franny that she doesn’t really know what she wants out of heaven, Franny tells her, ‘“All you have to do is desire it, and if you desire it enough and understand why – really know – it will come.” It seemed so simple and it was. That’s how Holly and I got our duplex.’
Susie also discovers that she has the ability to cross over into the world she has left behind to make a ghostly appearance, if she wishes to see someone she has left behind. (‘I had never let myself yearn for Buckley, afraid he might see my image in a mirror or a bottle cap . . . “Too young,” I said to Franny. “Where do you think imaginary friends come from?” she said.’) In the book’s fant-astical climax, Susie actually inhabits the body of one of her classmates, Ruth, in order to make love to another of her classmates, Ray, who, when she was alive, had given her the only kiss she ever received. Even Sebold’s most sympathetic reviewers have expressed the opinion that this sexual encounter from beyond the grave is an unsuccessful instance of overreaching.
But the false note that can be detected in this episode has been sounding throughout the book, albeit more quietly. The book’s conceit, that Susie lives watchfully on, is also the book’s deceit. The Lovely Bones aims to be, in the end, a feel-good book about rape, torture and murder, and while such an unlikely achievement is remarkable, it is also unsettling in ways that Sebold does not begin to address. Sebold herself was raped as an 18-year-old college student – she told the story in her first book, a memoir entitled Lucky, and it is fair to assume that salvaging hope and humour and humanity out of horrible violence is an important personal project. But why should a vast American readership also need to be told that a girl’s plucky spirit survives murderous defilement?
In part, perhaps, because the American appetite for real-life stories of the murderous defilement of young girls exceeds even the readership of Sebold’s novel. In the summer of 2002, the news media in the United States, as in the UK, were filled with accounts of girls abducted and assaulted; one pair of Californian teenagers who, having been raped, managed to escape their drifter attacker, even went on national television to describe their ordeal. For all the specific horror of the individual cases, such stories are formulaic, replaying a narrative of innocence lost, illustrated by photographs of beaming, trusting girls. (These stories represent a highly concentrated version of the omnipresent anxiety about the loss of childhood innocence that can be found in contemporary American culture; and one of the ways in which American parents worry that their children are being robbed of innocence is through their exposure to stories of real-life violence on television.) The repetition of such stories induced the President to announce a White House Conference on Missing, Exploited and Runaway Children, and to compare the fear that parents feel for their children’s safety to the threat of terrorism. The notion of a crime wave against little girls proved so compelling that the statistics, which show that the number of children abducted by strangers has actually decreased, were forgotten, and the crucial difference between a runaway child and an abducted one, elided by the President’s announcement, was ignored. The idea of an epidemic of children being snatched by their neighbours amounts to a fantasy that itself borders on the supernatural: it’s chilling, thrilling and completely unbuttressed by fact, and The Lovely Bones endows that fantasy with a happy ending. Cuteness, it turns out, is immortal.
This is not only untrue; it’s distasteful. For all Sebold’s deftness, her novel plays into US culture’s saccharine sensibility about girls and violence, a sensibility that attends the appetite for horror and is inseparable from it. When the President made his announcement he reported that Brenda Van Dam, the mother of Danielle Van Dam, who was abducted and murdered early this year, and Erin Runnion, the mother of Samantha Runnion, who this summer was snatched from outside her home then raped and murdered, had recently spoken with one another, and he gave their account of that exchange: ‘We had a conversation, mother to mother, about our daughters, our pain, and also our hope that Danielle and Samantha are dancing together in heaven.’ A grieving mother should be granted any comfort she can find; a culture might do well to be on guard against bland sentimentality. There is a scene in The Lovely Bones in which Susie meets another girl who has been killed by Mr Harvey and whose own version of heaven includes twirling so that her skirt flies out and dances around her. Sebold has written the perfect novel for this American moment.