Friday, August 11, 2006

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

One of the choices a writer has to make is what to reveal when, and one of the pleasant surprises of this well-written, very popular novel is the choice Sebold makes. The novel is narrated by Susie, a fourteen-year-old girl who has been raped and murdered by a serial killer and is now in heaven. This allows Sebold to escape all the normal limitations of first person since her narrator is omniscient, able to see all and to enter into the thoughts of other characters. What is interesting to me is that there is a lot of tension to the novel despite the fact that the reader knows everything about the murder, including who did it. Not only do we know, but a number of other characters in the novel also know (or are convinced they do). This is one of the ways Sebold reminds readers that she isn't writing a mystery. But she keeps up the tension of a mystery by having the murderer essentially get away with it--everybody knows he's guilty except for the police who have no evidence. So there's the tension of having a murderer walking around for the first half of the novel. Then he skips town and everyone, including the police, knows he did it, but he's still walking around (just somewhere else) and our omniscient narrator can (and occasionally does) follow him. But while the novel contains a lot of tension (including the graphic rape scene and one scary scene in the murderer's house), it's not driven by tension. It's driven by character and emotion (sad sad sad emotion). And that fact--that it's a character novel more than a plot novel--is cued by revealing everything up front.

I can see why the novel was such a success--it's literary in its language and dark in its concept but from the beginning feels like a survivor's tale--it's uplifting, hopeful. This is a novel where heaven exists and girls who are raped and murdered get to go there and watch their families and tell their stories. So our narrator loses her body but not her mind. She's a sad narrator and it's a story with a lot of real emotional weight, but to some extent the reader is let off the hook because characters go on to that better place where even their dead dogs join them. Compare that to a novel like Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye where a little girl is raped by her father and loses her mind but not her body. What happens to Pecola seems much much worse that what happens to Susie. And ultimately The Bluest Eye feels like a more important book, but one that the general public seemingly would prefer to shy away from (even though it too is a survivor's tale; it's just that one girl survives and the other doesn't) because it's so "heavy." Which is not to say The Bluest Eye hasn't done well--obviously it has--but more because of Morrison's acclaim and because academics teach it then because it was embraced by the widest public.

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