Months 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.