Saturday, May 15, 2010

the last book I read

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

Susie Salmon is 14. And has been for a while. Because she's dead! Raped and murdered by a near-neighbour on - hang on - page 15 of my paperback edition. Well, that'll be the end of her involvement in the story, then? But no - the remainder of the book is narrated by her ghostly spirit from heaven. Well, we gather it's a sort of preliminary heaven for those who still have some business that connects them to the physical world - in Susie's case concern for the welfare of her immediate family in the aftermath of her murder, and a desire to see some retribution for her killer.

Needless to say the family is traumatised by events - particularly since Susie's body is never found (the killer has cut it up, crammed it into a safe, and chucked it into a local sinkhole), only some bracelets and other circumstantial evidence. Susie's father, Jack, reckons he knows who did it, though, that Mr. Harvey from up the road - single, keeps himself to himself, all the usual stuff. Jack passes on his concerns to Detective Fenerman who's leading the investigation, but in the absence of any evidence there's not much he can do. Eventually Susie's sister Lindsey solves the problem by breaking into Mr. Harvey's house and stealing some incriminating drawings, but while the police investigation gets into gear Harvey packs up and skips town.

Meanwhile the family move on with life in their own ways - Jack's obsessive behaviour causes Susie's mother Abigail to leave and head off to California, where she ends up working at a winery; Abigail's eccentric mother Lynn moves in with the family; Lindsey starts up a relationship with local boy Sam Heckler; and younger brother Buckley may or may not be having occasional ghostly sightings of his dead sister. Susie's schoolmate Ruth also seems to have been gifted with some form of second sight following Susie's death, but in her case it seems to be a more general Sixth Sense-style seeing dead people rather than anything specific to Susie. Meanwhile we learn that Mr. Harvey is a serial killer, mainly of young girls - some of whom Susie meets in her limbo-world.

Years pass, people grow up, Lindsey and Sam get engaged, Ruth and Susie's former nearly-boyfriend Ray Singh strike up an odd relationship, and things are set up for a climax whereby everything comes together. Sure enough Jack has a heart attack in the garden and is rushed to hospital, Abigail rushes back from California to be at his bedside for a tearful reconciliation, Mr. Harvey returns to town for ill-defined reasons, and Ruth and Ray swing by the sinkhole on the outskirts of town for equally ill-defined reasons, whereupon Ruth has some sort of seizure (presumably brought on by her psychic sensitivity to Susie's buried remains) which allows Susie to swoop down and take possession of her body for a while - just long enough for her and Ray to sneak off and consummate their nearly-relationship of years before.

Eventually Mr. Harvey gets his comeuppance while trying to pick up another young girl, and Lindsey and Sam announce that they are expecting a child. These events seem to trigger an end to Susie's lingering presence on Earth and she ascends to "proper" heaven, where the Diet Coke and Snapple flow like water and there are fluffy ponies to ride and all the cake you can eat, or something like that.

A bit like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Lovely Bones is such a publishing sensation that nothing I say is going to have any impact. Part of the reason it's been such a bestseller is its featuring as one of Richard And Judy's Best Reads back in 2004; it's also recently been filmed. My reservations about heavily-hyped book club books are well-known to readers of this blog (see here and here, for instance), and I think The Lovely Bones is a perfect example of the problem - these are books for people that don't read books.

If you want less sweeping and snobby criticisms, here's a couple. It's pretty light and fluffy and saccharine; despite the veneer of shocking grittiness provided by describing (though not particularly graphically) a young girl's rape and murder in the first few pages nothing really bad happens to anyone thereafter, apart from Mr. Harvey right at the end. And speaking of endings, the tying up of the various plot strands seemed pretty unsatisfying to me. Take Mr. Harvey, for instance: are we to understand that Susie intervened in the real world in some way to bring about his death, say by giving a ghostly jiggle to that icicle to make it fall? If not, what would have happened? Was it that that was keeping Susie in limbo? If so, and the icicle thing was pure chance, would Mr. Harvey surviving have condemned her to further hanging about until some other chance event did for him? Or was it Lindsey's pregnancy that released her? If so, Mr. Harvey's death seems tacked on just to give us some convenient "closure", i.e. the bad guy getting his comeuppance. If you're going to re-use the old-as-the-hills device of having someone cursed to wander the earth clanking their ghostly chains, moaning and occasionally frightening small children until their spirit is released by some cathartic event, you need to be sure that your readers know what that event is, and notice when it's happened. And I really don't know what to make of the brief encounter between Susie (in Ruth's body) and Ray in the room at the back of Sam's brother's bike shop: I mean, Ruth's body may be 20-odd but the whole point of Susie's existence in limbo is that she hasn't aged, so essentially Ray is fucking a 14-year-old. Is it just me that finds that a bit weird, particularly given the circumstances of her death in the first place?

Let's take a step back. This is a perfectly fine and very readable book, though pretty insubstantial. Part of the reason it's been so successful is that it seems superficially "deep" because it's narrated by a ghost, and therefore is, like, you know, about death in some way. But it isn't, really, in the same way that American Beauty was less profound than its use of the same narrative device made you think it was. And the book's ending just seems horribly botched to me, as if Sebold couldn't really think of a good way of ending it and just bailed out and hoped no-one would notice. Well, I noticed. If you want a couple of books that are, like, you know, about death in some way but address the subject in a less clich├ęd and more interesting way, you could try Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend In A Coma or William Golding's Pincher Martin.

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