The Lovely Bones

Published October 25, 2011 by Jennifer Loring

I first read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones around the same time I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Good times in the Loring household that year. There are several topics I considered for this particular post, which has surely undergone more revision that necessary: isolation, the gender binary (Abigail deserves a post of her own), grief. I finally settled on the ability to let go of things you cannot change, because it’s crucial for anyone who has suffered loss or has been wronged. Without this ability, the emotional devastation wrought is nearly total.

The Roma have a belief that if one cannot stop grieving the dead, the dead will follow them home from the funeral, seeking a way back into the world of the living. Because of this, the Roma conduct a strict purification ritual, in which all of the possessions of the deceased are either burned or sold to outsiders. After the funeral, even the name of the deceased is never spoken again. It’s a fascinating ritual and a crucial point in my own novel. I don’t know if Alice Sebold was aware of this belief, but I found parallels between it and Susie’s inability to move on as long as her death continued to be the focal point of her family’s life (especially her father’s). Like the Roma dead, she cannot be at peace until her family has made peace with the reality that she is gone forever.

Jack Salmon at last recognizes his emotional abandonment of his family, having sacrificed their love for his obsession with Mr. Harvey; Abigail understands the pain she inflicted on her husband and children by leaving, though it was driven by guilt; Lindsey, an adult now, begins a new life with Samuel and–rather tellingly–a career as a therapist. Susie’s family has not only reconciled, they have confronted their loss and begun to construct a life that no longer includes her. Susie is thus able to take the first steps toward her own freedom. “In some way I could not account for…I was done yearning for them, needing them to yearn for me. Though I still would. Though they still would. Always” (318). The Salmon family has learned the hard way that the years spent skirting around their grief, as if it were a giant black hole in the center of their lives, served only to pull them apart when they needed each other the most, when they might have “healed,” if you believe in such a thing, all the more quickly for acknowledging their built-in support network.     

Susie’s willingness to finally let go of the living world is best exemplified with regard to Mr. Harvey. She could have told Ray where the body was as she inhabited Ruth; she could have given Ruth enough clues to put the pieces together, or could have even communicated with Buckley, the only member of her family who has clearly seen and spoken to Susie as a ghost. Instead, she chooses to dispatch Mr. Harvey herself with the serendipitous falling of an icicle, the weapon she always chose in heaven’s “How To Commit the Perfect Murder” games. She no longer needs the living to center their world around her death. She doesn’t need revenge, nor the fanfare of an arrest and trial for Mr. Harvey. She simply needs him to stop killing others and creating more spirits like her, for she has witnessed the futility of longing to be alive again and, for those left behind, of longing for the dead to return.

In To Each Their Darkness Gary Braunbeck writes, “…[T]hings scab over, scars can be removed, blood mopped up and wounds cauterized, but the painful memories remain; oh, sure, they eventually lose their hold over you and your life, but that doesn’t help win back the friends you’ve lost as a result, nor does it erase the cruelties and hurts you inflict on those you love, and it sure as hell doesn’t get back any of the time you’ve lost trying to come to grips with them” (303). It’s certainly an apt description for the ordeal suffered by the Salmon family. And for any of us who have experienced similar trauma, Gary offers this simple yet sage advice: “You confront it, get the upper hand, and get on with life as best you can” (304).

Works Cited:

Braunbeck, Gary. To Each Their Darkness. Lexington, KY: Apex Publications. 2010. 

Sebold, Alice. The Lovely Bones. Boston, New York, London: Little, Brown and Company. 2002.

2 comments on “The Lovely Bones

  • Every time we finish a book for class I hop over to your blog. No matter what my personal opinion is on our texts, your posts always elevate the book for me. I didn't care for this one, but your response was well-written. And hooray for tying it to the Roma! Because some of this crossed my mind, too, as I read the book, and I know how much you and I think about the Roma when we write our novels. I love seeing how we take this belief about the afterlife and twist it for our purposes.Btw, my mother says TLC has a show that documents some of the Roma life (centered around weddings though, ugh)…I haven't checked it out yet but it will be interesting to see how the editors of the show depict the Roma and how much the people they follow around with cameras will let them inside their culture. Have you seen this show?

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