My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. My murderer was a man from our neighborhood. My mother liked his border flowers, and my father talked to him once about fertilizer. This is Susie Salmon. Watching from heaven, Susie sees her happy, suburban family devastated by her death, isolated even from one another as they each try to cope with their terrible loss alone. Over the years, her friends and siblings grow up, fall in love, do all the things she never had the chance to do herself. But life is not quite finished with Susie yet . . .
Ok, confessions first, seeing as the story is triggered by a crime! I saw the film first, even though I’d been told continually how much better the book was. (Score 1 Hollywood) But if I’m completely honest I wouldn’t have bought a copy if I hadn’t seen the film (score 1 Literature) Also I’m not a complete film-adaptation snob, Lord of the Rings had a similar effect, and I was even able to finish all 6 books before the end of the Hollywood franchise made it to the screens! Anyway, I feel a burden has been lifted, so back to the book in question The Lovely Bones is not my normal theme of choice, as murder stories of children aren’t something I’m particularly drawn to. But I knew (thanks to the film makers) that the brutal murder would take place early on and that the story as a whole is deeper than a whodunit.
So for those that haven’t sold out and seen the film (!). This story begins with the tale of Susie Salmon a 14 year old girl who is cruelly ripped from the centre of her family by their twisted serial killer neighbour. (Don’t worry, I didn’t put a spoiler alert here because the killer’s identity is revealed within the first few chapters.
You are drawn into the story immediately, and the character Susie is so charismatic you want to be right beside her throughout her limbo voyeurism on her friends and families. Also Sebold plots the timing of Susie’s horrific demise perfectly to engulf us in an enormous fog of sympathetic love for Susie. She is at the age where the noble Britney Spears would tell us she is ‘Not a girl, not yet a woman’. Susie is at the exploratory stage in life where she is full of enthusiasm, uncertainty and curiosity. And as a result is the perfect narrator to the experiences of her family and friends following her sudden departure from their lives. It is through her insightful narration that the story takes grip of you as we see relationships weaken, strengthen, kindle, break and rebuild following the loss of child/sibling/peer.
Susie’s family consists of; her parents, Jack and Abigail who were childhood/college sweethearts full of youthful aspirations who fall into parenthood and married life with two daughters and then unexpectedly a son; her gifted and sporty and rather spirited younger sister, Lindsey; her baby brother Buckley who is forced to deal with the loss of his sister at a very young age; and finally her Grandmother, Grandma Lynn who is a force to be reckoned with whist balancing a freshly poured glass of her favourite tipple.
We are also follow a handful of other people impacted by Susie Salmon. First and foremost there is the creepy neighbour Mr Harvey who we discover has a haunted history of luring, sexually abusing and ultimately fulfilling his thirst by ending their lives. Although she has never met, Len Fenerman in her lifetime, Susie oversees the troubled Detective Fenerman’s interaction with her family throughout the investigation of her murder. Singh, Susie’s first and only kiss, originally fingered as Susie’s killer by the community which doesn’t help the English/Asian immigrant feel less of an outsider. And finally, creative Ruth Connors, who only ever had a few fleeting encounters with Susie, another stranger to the social norm and finds her final brush with Susie has an everlasting imprint.
So, what does Susie see from her limbo viewpoint? Well, she is led into setting up her own world with her guide and then friend Holly, where they can dip in and out of the lives of the above who were left behind. We are initially shown two very different reactions to grief by Susie’s parents. Jack becomes obsessed with the investigation and very suspicious of Mr Harvey, which leads him into meeting different people and some rather hard situations. Ultimately his search weakens him both emotionally and physically almost to the point when his wife, Abigail, leaves it has little impact on him. What never lessens is his love for his children, both living and deceased, I was particularly touched by the advice he gives Lindsey about shaving her legs for the first time in the absence of her older sister and mother, for me it showed a loving father’s attention to detail and attempt to be there when in other circumstances it wouldn’t be his place. The love between Susie and her father is so strong that perhaps between pure determination perhaps help along by us willing it! a connection is made and ultimately after many years Susie has to decide when it’s time to let her father go.
Susie’s mother, Abigail, is also devastated by her loss, but contains with her grief much more inwardly. Abigail is creative and very pensive by nature and this is reflected in her oceanic eyes which was captured by a photograph taken by Susie. Abigail struggles to deal with her surviving family and falls into a brief affair with another man and ultimately abandons them all to really run away from everything. It is interesting how sympathetic Susie is towards her mother’s action in comparison to her siblings, who are both equally angry with Abigail when she returns years later from her vacation of discovery.
Lindsey is a feisty character, and through her Susie experiences falling in love and the transition from girl to young woman which she missed out on. She watches Lindsey fall in love with her childhood sweetheart Sam and how they evolve into a mature loving couple. This is whilst simultaneously dealing with being compared to her murdered sister and the feeling of being whispered about. She deals with the whispers or typical sympathetic comments with a rather angry retorts, but manages to not allow Susie’s death to define her, and you can feel the pride of Susie as she sees this. Lindsey also has a strong bond with her father and when he is physically unable to ‘investigate’ Mr Harvey, she willingly picks up the baton and takes a big risk to uncover evidence which ultimately links Harvey to Susie’s killing.
Susie’s brother Buckley is only 3 or 4 years old at the time of the murder, and finds himself regularly shipped out to a neighbour to shelter him from the pain. However as with young children they will eventually need answers and for Buckley it’s rather confusing as it becomes evident he is able to see Susie as she looks in on her family. We are shown Buckley growing up in a motherless, yet loving environment and his response to the re-introduction of his mother to the family home shows this.
Outside the immediate family Susie shows us how her last touch on earth (as a spirit) on young Ruth Connors helps bring Ruth and Ray together as outsiders with a common interest, Susie. I found this relationship an interesting one, it’s almost both forced and natural at the same time. I guess you could call it a supernatural one! However their developing relationship also helps Susie discover elements of ‘grown up’ love and she is able to connect with Ray again one more time, which is a strange and sweet scene. A little bit like Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore/Whoopi Goldberg , a Potter’s Wheel and The Righteous Brothers.
Also whilst in limbo Susie meets and connects with a long list of girls and women all sadly on George Harvey’s list of victims, and we discover where his bloodlust begins. As we are taken through his journey of destruction of the innocent, we’re shown how his evil mind meticulously plots his plan of death and there is are little if any redeeming features about him. There are levels of intrigue about the skill of his intelligence of how he weaves stories of a deceased wife (usually named after his previous victim) in order to quash suspicions of a single man who makes dolls houses. He is indeed a nasty character who we slowly await his just desserts, and I let you decide whether you think Susie had any help in serving it!
Verdict : I feel like I’ve rabbitted quite a lot about this story, but it is an amazingly complex web of characters, some I’ve had to leave out for you to discover yourself, who all drawn together through the life of Susie Salmon. Although her departure rocked them all I really enjoyed how this story focuses on how it makes them all too. Even after experiencing such deep sorrow and tragedy these characters are able to build themselves and each other back up again. There is also the question about life after death, and I found Susie answering that by basically watching over her family and friends lives fuelling that spiritual desire within telling us no matter where our loved ones have gone they are still there when we need them.
I’ll give it 9/10 and agree with all the book first purists that yes the book is of course twice as good as the film (final score Literature 2, Hollywood 1).
Reviewed by Sam