The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, begins by introducing the protagonist, Susie Salmon (like the fish, she reminds us), who is dead, murdered by a neighbor who’s made smalltalk with her parents a few times. As her community searches for her killer, and finally come to terms with her death, Susie watches from heaven.
Heaven, in The Lovely Bones, is a non-religious afterlife where everything is just as you want. Susie encounters a heavenly intake counselor, a former non-profit caseworker whose heaven is working for people who thank and appreciate her, and a heavenly roommate, a Vietnamese girl whose heaven includes speaking accentless English and having an American name. Unfortunately for me, Susie’s own heaven was the least appealing one described, involving a townful of dogs (I think this proves I have no heart but I can’t really get into all the maintenance required for slobber machines), but the details here, like the 14-year-old reading of Seventeen or the smells she most loved on earth, make any reader imagine their own heaven, without harps and angels, but perhaps the smell of new plastic and endless brand-new scenes in the Harry Potter movies. At least for me.
Susie leaves heaven to watch her friends and family. She watches her sister learn of her death, and grow up as dead Susie’s younger sister in school and around town. She visits her siblings, parents and school friends, watching them live their lives for years, and appearing, now and then, in a reflection or for a second at the corner of their eyes.
She also watches her high-school crush, Ray Singh. The relationship between Susie and Ray is absolutely perfect. High school relationships in books and movies tend to appear as whirlwind perfection or unwatchable awkwardness. (I do pull the embarrassment pillow over my face when this happens, but this isn’t always effective, since my father and my boyfriend both like to narrate movies as they unfold.) The Lonely Bones perfectly captures the awkward beauty of teenage connection without turning either Ray or Susie into a caricature.
Susie also watches the man who killed her. She learns his habits, and his history, even meeting in heaven a collection of other girls and women murdered by this man. Descriptions of him are almost sympathetic, which is the most disturbing part of the book, far creepier than Susie’s rape and murder. As Susie is almost omniscient in heaven, she looks through his life. In a book like this, with characters that are so fully developed, it seemed weird to track the killer’s life back to his mother’s abandonment, transferring the blame for all the deaths (and Susie is one of a long line) not on the killer, but on his mother.
Without giving too much away, Susie’s father and sister determine her killer, but readers are brought not to revenge or retribution, but to healing. The story ends with a satisfying conclusion, a conclusion that’s more of a beginning than a resolution.
I have to wonder how this story will translate to a film. I can read about Susie’s death and be moved by it, but I don’t think I want to see it. This is entirely different from my usual skittishness towards movies based on books I enjoyed, I’m not worried that the filmmakers won’t show it the way I pictured it in my head, I’m worried that the filmmakers will show it at all. Tragedy and violence are moving on the page, but usually gratuitous and messy on the screen.
I also wonder how Susie’s appearances to her family and friends will translate to a movie. I’m reminded of the topiaries in The Shining, which terrified me in the book, tickling that creepy sense that something is moving just beyond our field of vision, but somehow killer shrubs just looked goofy on film. I found The Lovely Bones gentle and disturbing by turns, and it will be interesting to see how it appears in a movie.