Sunday, 7 March 2010

Book Review: The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold (2002)

Susie Salmon, a 14 year-old from suburban Pennsylvania, is raped and murdered by her neighbour. From heaven, she narrates the story of her family.

A young dead girl narrating the events of her murder, her past, and how her family copes with her death is a clever and interesting plot device which helps launch The Lovely Bones with a flourish. But beyond this initial boost, Alice Sebold's book quickly descends into a mundane and relatively trashy melodrama.

Sebold is aching to re-create some of the magic dust effortlessly sprinkled by To Kill A Mockingbird, which makes a brief early appearance in The Lovely Bones. The parallels are sometimes obvious: the young girl as a narrator; the dangerous house on the way to the local school; the evolving sibling relationship; the grandparent who moves into the house; the many neighbours with their own stories; and the attempt to recreate a wistful backwards look to a different era, this time the early 1970's.

Not much of this works in The Lovely Bones. The characters are either one-dimensional to the point of transparency, or undergo transformations that are never explained. We have Lindsey, Susie's sister, somehow transforming from a cold-hearted young teen who shuts out the world after her sister's death, to a burglar who breaks into the home of the murderer, to a well-adjusted young woman enjoying life with her boyfriend. This boyfriend and his brother, motorcycle riding teenage boys, have no adult guidance but seem to do no wrong and behave impeccably throughout.

Susie's father, an accountant, endlessly mourns his loss, lusts after an exotic neighbour, and suddenly goes all Rambo with a baseball bat attack that backfires on him. He goes back to endlessly mourning for the rest of the book. Susie's mother wants to move on with life, so she has an affair and ditches her entire family. Hey, what mother would not abandon her two remaining kids when their sister has just been butchered?

There is also a chapter that crosses the line from the mystical to the farcical, with Susie taking over the body of one her classmates for a lovers' escapade. It's the reunion scene in the movie Ghost taken to the extremes of physical gratification for the must-have generation.

It is all immature and simply unbelievable behaviour of the type typically seen on TV shows that aim for the lowest common denominator at the expense of logic.

But The Lovely Bones is most exasperating in its endless descriptive passages that incessantly interrupt every single event. No character can walk across the room, and no two people can have a conversation, without the intervention of three or more long interruptive, long winded descriptive paragraphs of often meaningless tripe, usually attempting to dredge up and colour pictures of past irrelevant incidents. This is padding for the sake of padding, a literary device overused to the point of exhaustion.

The Lovely Bones could have been an interesting and thought provoking heaven-and-earth tale; instead, it turns into simplistic and mostly insipid nonsense.

Published in paperback by Back Bay Books.
328 pages.

All Ace Black Book Reviews are here.

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