This book has been on my TBR since forever. I loved the concept of “The Lovely Bones”: a ghost narrating the story of the lives that her near and dear ones lead post her death, from her point of view. Literally a ghost story.
This post is not a review, it’s a discussion post. I’ve clearly labelled the few spoilers I have added to this post, for the convenience of the few mortal souls who haven’t read this book yet.
Susie Salmon, a fourteen year old girl, is raped and murdered on December 6, 1973 in the most brutal fashion. She leaves behind a family comprising of her father Jack, her mother Abigail, her younger siblings Lindsey and Buckley.
She goes to heaven, which looks like the ideal place she always dreamt of living in. (Yes, in this book, every person who goes to heaven has his/her own version of heaven to live in. Can’t wait to join this version of heaven! Oh no, wait, Elysium is my dream heaven.) Up in her heaven, Susie can watch her family and friends from above and follow their lives as if she is still alive. She hovers around them, hiding behind a curtain or lurking in the doorway, as they try to cope with the loss of a daughter, a sister, a friend and a crush. She stands guard over her murderer, as he tries to evade police suspicion and (SPOILER narrowly succeeds END). She is a silent spectre-tator to her father’s single-handed efforts to nail down her murderer, a person he has accurately pinned his suspicions on even in the face of no real information. The very same single-handed efforts that annoy the police department to no end, because “gut feelings” don’t count, do they?
Susie sees the lives of her family change drastically: her sister grows up and becomes the teenager that Susie could have been if she had not come under the radar of a murderous neighbour. Her brother is clueless about the loss of his eldest sister, but gradually comes to terms with it after a conversation with their dad over a game of Monopoly. Her father tries his best to keep the family together and to prevent the ghost of his eldest daughter from affecting his love for his other two children. Her mother withdraws into a shell of sadness and despair, seeking comfort in the arms of the detective working on the murder investigation.
The guy who gave Susie her first kiss, Ray Singh, is initially suspected of murdering Susie, but his alibi is watertight. The last human who Susie’s ghost saw as it departed from the living world into heaven, Ruth, is inevitably and continuously haunted by the vision of a female whose body was covered by a thin white veil as thin as cheesecloth. (I rephrased a dialogue by Ruth to write this pristine sentence).
The other characters in this book are Grandma Lynn, Susie’s maternal grandmother; Samuel, Lindsey’s boyfriend; Hal, Samuel’s brother, Nate, Buckley’s friend, Mr. Harvey, the murderer; Len Fenerman, the detective; Clarissa, Susie’s best friend.
This book is not a murder mystery, as the reader is introduced to the murderer in unambiguous terms at the start of the book itself. This book is an amalgamation of three quarters fantasy and young adult fiction mixed with a quarter of mystery. The mystery is a minor and simple one: is Mr. Harvey punished for his crimes? A major chunk of the book focuses on the aftermath of the loss of a loved one, where questions of ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’ remain hauntingly unanswered.
As I mentioned earlier, the concept of the book thrilled me. But the excitement of being able to mingle around with your loved ones even after death sadly dissipated beyond the halfway mark of the book. The former half of the book roughly covered the one year that passed since Susie’s tragic demise. The horror of being the only person to know exactly what happened to your body before you died (only person other than the murderer, of course) and the pain of not being able to provide an answer to calm the grief your loved ones are experiencing is a rivetting aspect of the narrative in the beginning. But post the first anniversary of Susie’s death, as each of the members of the family start coping with their grief in their own way and once the memory of Susie is not as painful as it was a while ago, that’s when the story starts losing a bit of its charm and initial thrill. In my opinion, the latter half of the book seems awfully similar to any other young adult fiction story about love and loss. The advantage of having a ghost as a narrator becomes unnecessary here. Remember, books have been written using multiple character POVs and 99% of them are narrated by the living characters themselves without invoking a heavenly being.
However, I must appreciate the prose in this book. Not as many quotable passages as I expected, but the emotions of grief, loss and sorrow are beautifully captured using metaphors. A passage I read twice because it seemed awfully deep was this one:
“She asked for coffee and toast in a restaurant and buttered it with her tears. She went into a flower shop and asked for daffodils, and when there were none she felt robbed. It was such a small wish – a bright yellow flower.”
This scene occurs in the life of Susie’s mom, Abigail. Some background info – Susie loved daffodils. The “buttering the toast with tears” and “being robbed of daffodils” are a brilliant way of portraying the grief on a mother’s mind: you see your dead child everywhere and sorrow permeates everything you say and do, but it’s impossible to actually hold your child in your hands once again.
(SPOILER ALERT) If there’s something that irked me about the book, it’s an instance that occurs in the last few pages of the book. Here, Susie is shown to possess the body of Ruth and make out with her first kiss-giver, Ray. Yes, I’m not kidding. (Why Ruth? Ray and Ruth are a thing post Susie’s death.) Furthermore, this heated make-out session is followed by a hurried call made by Susie to Buckley, her younger brother. It seemed like the author was trying to sugarcoat death and loss here with the help of fantasy and by appealing to the romantic side of a reader. Which is the last thing anybody who’s grieving the loss of a loved one should read. (SPOILER ALERT END)
All things said, I give this book a 4/5 star rating and recommend it to young readers who have recently experienced the loss of a loved one, readers who are mature enough to understand the difference between fact, fiction and fantasy.
P.S.: I will be reading “Lucky” by Alice Sebold too. Hopefully soon. It’s a memoir of the author’s experience of being brutally raped as a college freshman and her life post that tragic incident.