Alice Sebold: The Lovely Bones

Copyright Freefoto.comMonths back, I bought a copy of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold from a loc­al remainder book­shop. I felt bad because it cost less than a pound, and God knew how much money would go to the author. Guilty feet have got no rhythm — I tripped on the way out.

Before The Lovely Bones, Sebold had an earli­er suc­cess with a book called Lucky, which described her rape at Syracuse University. Sebold, who is made of strong stuff, recog­nised her attack­er in the street some months later, and man­aged to secure his arrest and pro­sec­u­tion. She spent the next ten years in New York, where she took wait­ress­ing jobs while work­ing on a writ­ing career. A heroin addic­tion came and went. Eventually, she pub­lished Lucky, and wrote The Lovely Bones.

It would be fair to say that The Lovely Bones is a game, like all fic­tion, of ‘what if’. What if, this time, the rape ends in murder? This is the fate of four­teen-year-old Susie Salmon, who is attacked by a neigh­bour while passing through a corn­field near her home. Sebold con­tin­ues the story in Heaven, where Susie, the third-per­son nar­rat­or per­son­i­fied, describes the impact of her death on her fra­gile moth­er, resi­li­ent sis­ter, near-per­fect fath­er, even the dog.

This is a won­der­ful book that seems to rise above its flaws. The heart of its power, I would sug­gest, is Sebold’s con­trol of tone. A piece of fic­tion should be char­ac­ter­ised by expert manip­u­la­tion of emo­tion through tone; the life of a char­ac­ter is viewed through the gel of tone, so that a murder can be made funny (Throw Momma From the Train), or a com­edy tra­gic (Funny Bones). Sebold just does not let up. Her prot­ag­on­ist is so good and angel­ic that the lem­ons of hor­rif­ic epis­odes are trans­muted into the most won­der­ful lem­on­ade, quasi-mys­tic­al gen­er­al­isa­tions about the human con­di­tion. I was quite impressed by this because it seems to emerge en passant as the story is told. Indeed, I’m sure that’s how the work evolved. If a writer sits down with the thought ‘I’m going to write a nov­el to teach people their human­ity’ instead of ‘Hmm, that’s inter­st­ing, I won­der what…’ then that writer is likely to pro­duce a stag­ger­ingly awful work. Not so Sebold.

I don’t want to talk too much about the flaws in The Lovely Bones. Suffice it to say, where in most fic­tion they would be fatal, Sebold can com­pensate by ramp­ing up the dial on her emo­tion­al amp to 11. The Lovely Bones is a mas­ter­class — in how to break the rules.

I’ll pay full whack for her next book.

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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

5 thoughts on “Alice Sebold: The Lovely Bones”

  1. Don’t worry too much about get­ting it on the cheap: when the book was released, Macmillan gave pal­lets (lit­er­ally) of the paper­back away to all and sun­dry in an effort to cre­ate word of mouth. It worked as well.

  2. I read the lovely bones a couple of years ago and it made me sob my eyes out. Powerful stuff.

  3. I work at Macmillans; one day we came in to work and found a copy on each of our desks. I’d already bought a copy by then but just goes to con­firm what WR says.

    Now that Blogger is allow­ing com­ments, just wanted to write that I did enjoy the Lovely Bones and found the first half com­pel­ling and mov­ing, as well as ori­gin­al (to me). However, I did not enjoy the second half very much and felt the book had kind of run out of steam. Overall I am glad I read it, it was har­row­ing but I did man­age to gath­er some strength from it. And it is always nice to read a book by someone who can write so well. It does stand out in my mind as an excep­tion­al book; I just felt slightly let down that after such a fant­ast­ic start, the book seemed to turn into a set for­mula.
    I also went out and bought Lucky as a res­ult of read­ing LB, but have not read it yet.
    I read at the time that Sebold wrote Lucky first, but her pub­lish­er or someone advised her not to pub­lish it first as then she would always be asso­ci­ated in everyone’s minds with the awful events of that story. So she wrote LB and pub­lished that, then pub­lished Lucky later. I don’t know if that is true, but it makes sense to me.
    Thanks for the post, Ian.

  4. Thanks for your com­ments, Maxine. I have to agree that I thought some of her story decisions in the second half stretched belief some­what. I’m think­ing, in par­tic­u­lar, of the ‘epis­ode’ involving Ruth and Susie’s first love, R___ (can’t remem­ber his name). At the same time, I was impressed that Sebold still man­aged to make it work des­pite these flaws.

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