Having been heavily publicised following the 2009 film and winning the Richard and Judy (*Cringe*) ‘Best Read Award’, the plot of this book will hardly have escaped your notice. It hadn’t mine, and yet despite the slight hype surrounding Sebold’s first, I wasn’t dissuaded. In fact, for this best seller, I knew I HAD to read it.
There is something intriguing about a book in which the hero dies early on. I am always fascinated to see how plots unfold and thicken when the main lead cannot be present. My interest due to this unique convention is caught in the first breath, and especially so with this novel. Susie Salmon is attacked and killed in the most brutal possible way. The scene is gut wrenching and terrifying and terrible all in one; a deep, deep sadness injected early on which lingers in every syllable, but not with weight that prevents enjoyment.
I naively assumed that the story line would be a hard, gritty one which hunted down Susie’s killer and brought justice to the world. It does neither. The narrative instead focusses on two main aspects; the living and the dead. For Susie’s family, her disappearance finally breaks through the paper covering so many cracks, and seems to blow sand in the eyes of dreams long forgotten or resting indefinitely. How each in turn deal with her death is heartbreaking and often harrowing, all falling apart in a different but not always visible ways. Death is a strange old thing; there is nothing quite like it, other than money, to change perceptions and personalities in an instance. How people react in such sad times is wide and varied, both terrible and wonderful. No one truly knows which way grief will turn but Sebold does an incredibly intelligent job at showing just a few of its faces.
The story is honest. Not only does it follow the changes in Susie’s family over a prolonged period but also shines a light on how we affect people that we may not even notice. Grief can swell in the remotest of places, touch those we never even really knew. For Susie, it was Ruth, the strange, serious girl who never quite fit in. Her high school was a foreign world to her but on the night of Susie’s death, so much more of the world suddenly made sense, and an everlasting bond was forged in melancholy for a girl she had barely known. Ruth’s part in the story does not feel quite a strong as that of the Salmon family – particularly one scene towards the end which I did not particularly care for, when all the subtlety disappeared and a period of the bizarre supernatural entered the pages, but disregard this complaint, it is but a nit-pick. However, I think it is important to see the wider repercussions of our existence on others and perhaps allow this thought to adapt how we might behave on occasions. I am reminded of a lesson my Mum taught me during my secondary school years; Don’t give cause for people to think bad on you for you never know when you will meet them again!
For Susie, possibly a sadder tale than that of her family. She lingers in her heaven watching them, willing them to think on her and be directed towards the man who caused so much ill. She flicks between people and places, mourning her inability to grow up and follow her own desires; desperately yearning for some sense of life and belonging again. Even though she describes her place as ‘heaven’ and she has almost all she could possibly desire, the one thing which she can’t have seems to plunge her more into a state of purgatory. Being separated from those she loves, only to watch on as (in essence) as they move along their individual journeys is almost torture to read. Susie suffers her own grief and oh, how you feel it.
Although the vast majority of the book is incredibly sad, I found by the end that I was warmed and uplifted. There were lessons for all involved to learn, but for each and everyone of them it was about letting go. As humans we seem to cling on to things, past, possessions or people, and long for them to be relived. It is this longing that prevents our hearts, bodies and souls from moving on. Sebold’s tale tells us all that actually, it is ok to let go. It is ok to say goodbye. It doesn’t mean that those people or things mean any less to us, nor that their effect was any less profound, just that as with everything else in time, it has its place. And with the letting go comes the air, the breath and the feeling of relief that life can finally become real again.
I can pin point this uplifting feel to one particular line in the narrative, very nearly at the end. Susie simply says, “And I was gone.” At this moment I felt as if a weight lifted from my shoulders. It was as if I, Me, the reader, had been carrying Susie Salmon around, feeling her hurt and the torment of all those around her. And in this one moment she was gone and free and it was ok. I could breath again. Her own tale may have had a dubious resolution but Susie had accepted this, had accepted the way that life now was. Her family had accepted one another again and found themselves once more after years of anguish.
An incredible story about human frailty and our subtle interactions with one another. A wonderful, wonderful book, so exquisitely put that had I lingered a little longer I fear the tears would not have stopped. It affected me so much that I am incredibly dubious now about seeing the film – I suspect, again possibly quite naively, that the screenplay may focus on the more gruesome aspects of Susie’s death and a determination to track her killer. I could be wrong, but I desperately don’t want to shatter the illusion of a story which I seem to have taken to heart. If I could be promised its accuracy and allegiance to the truth of the narrative, then I may be convinced. But for now I simply want to absorb everything that was elegant and beautiful about The Lovely Bones.