I could hardly breathe while reading the first chapters of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. The novel was first published in 2002; the paperback was released in 2006, followed by a film release in 2010. The original cover of the novel features a charm bracelet centered against a calm, sky blue background, an image which belies the horror inside. The narrator, 14 year old Susie Salmon, calmly narrates how she was lured to an underground den by a neighbor where she was raped, murdered and then disembodied. The bulk of the novel focuses on her observing the effect this crime has on her family and friends from a distant setting – her personal Heaven. Sebold is a a victim of rape herself, an event she details in her memoir Lucky which was published in 1999. Her reading audience can trust her as a guide in confronting such acts of violence, in both fiction and non-fiction, which speaks to her power as a writer.
Once I first heard the plot, I had no intention of reading the book, but other (adult) readers assured me that I once I got passed the murder (which was as gruesome and graphic as I feared), I would find comfort in the character of Susie. I note that many students, all girls, have a similar attitude. When they read The Lovely Bones, they do not focus on the horrible murder. Instead they share Susie’s curiosity of what is happening on Earth now that she is gone. What will happen to her parents? Her sister? Her friend Ruth? Will her murderer ever be discovered? These questions drive their interest. They are fascinated with the absent but “present-ness” of the main character. Susie is very self-aware; her observations are what make the tragic circumstances bearable.
There are always copies of The Lovely Bones at every used book sale, and I only pick the trade paperbacks with the original cover. The paperback had a re-release with the film with a less attractive cover featuring an ominous Stanley Tucci looking back at the young actress Saoirse Ronan. That book is bargain priced at Amazon for $6.00. Sebold’s novel is one of a growing number of contemporary novels, adult and young adult, where the a deceased narrator observes or interacts with the living. She was not the first to use this technique, but I think she made this point of view commercially viable.
We offer The Lovely Bones at the high school level (grades 9 and up only) as an independent read; I do not think we will ever teach this book, but we have enough copies for a group discussion or book buddy read. The title was one of the first I began collecting in 2009 once I heard from enough students who thought others would like to read the book. We have a set of 20 copies now, enough for several more years of use by students. While they may not be upset by the novel’s opening, I am still squeamish whenever I pick up a copy remembering how my heart raced at the story’s nightmarish beginning.