Heaven’s gate

Much has been made of Alice Sebold’s new book The Lovely Bones—especially its opening chapter (a teenage girl is raped and murdered) and uncommon narrative (the girl tells the story from heaven). Critics have applauded the book, calling it “a deeply affecting meditation” (New York Times), “a beautiful amalgam of novelistic styles” (Los Angeles Times), a “personal and artistic triumph” (Time) and a “savagely beautiful story” (San Francisco Chronicle).

Perhaps Sebold’s first book, Lucky—a non-fiction memoir of her own rape and the subsequent trial of her attacker—provides humane insight into why critics seem so uniformly pre-disposed to write overblown reviews of this work. But instead of hyperbole, what The Lovely Bones deserves is a simple question: Is this more than a sweet, first-ever novel by a talented young author?

The answer is yes, probably. If readers can set aside the critic-driven expectation that The Lovely Bones is one of the remarkable works of our time (it’s not), they may find the truth, i.e. that Sebold has written a fine story, a lovely coming-of-age tale where the dead learn to let go of the living and the living manage to make peace with the dead.

The book begins: “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” The precocious teenager proceeds to tell of being lured into an underground hideaway by neighborhood eccentric Mr. Harvey, then brutally raped and murdered. She narrates the story from her own personal heaven as she proceeds—with equal parts fascination and detachment—to watch life unfold for the ones she leaves behind. Sebold’s idea of setting Susie up as omniscient narrator from heaven is a terrific one. You get the sense, in fact, that once that idea was had, the rest of the book almost wrote itself.

Susie has found a kind of peace in her heaven, where she can wish for anything and make it so. She views events on Earth, but can’t intercede as the people in her life react in different ways to her murder. Her father becomes obsessed with finding the killer, her mother distances herself from family and stumbles into an affair, her sister Lindsey blossoms (becoming everything Susie would have liked to become) and 4-year-old brother, Buck, pitied because of a murdered sister, learns life lessons that no young person ever should. Everyone is shaped in some way by Susie’s murder. Toward the end, the plot takes on more traditional aspects of a detective thriller as Susie watches her killer turn his eye to young sister Lindsey.

Some say The Lovely Bones is ultimately a lesson in how victims and their families deal with tragic, senseless crime and its cutting impacts. Yes, and perhaps there is truth to the idea that the book is a kind of good therapy for those who have suffered the destruction of a loved one in a terrible crime.

But a book should be more than therapy. And The Lovely Bones toys with being much more. All this makes the inflated reviews for this book even more unfortunate because readers can’t help but expect more than they finally get. Too bad, because The Lovely Bones is worthy and deserves better than that.