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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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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