One of the more interesting publishing stories of the decade was in 2002-2003 when The Lovely Bones by first-time novelist Alice Sebold staked a claim to the top spot. The book, in which a young girl's abduction and murder is retold by the victim (in spirit form), grabbed its fair share of attention and headlines from the more pedigreed works by Dan Brown (Da Vinci Code), James Patterson and Danielle Steel. Seven years later, the movie version starring Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz is set to debut, opening next month. Sebold is a former student of the University of Houston's M.F.A. program.
"The events my death brought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous lifeless body had been my life." p. 363
Susie Salmon is 14 on December 6, 1973, the last day of her life. The oldest daughter of Jack and Abigail Salmon of Norristown, Pennsylvania, Susie meets her fate walking home alone from school after a confrontation with her peculiar neighbor George Harvey sees her raped, murdered and concealed, her corpse dismembered and boxed up. It's a while before the Salmons--both Jack and Abigail along with Lindsey, Susie's younger sister by a year, and Buckley, the toddler son--accept that Susie is really dead, not just missing. Questions linger until an elbow (Susie's), a remnant of the dead girl mistakenly left behind, is found giving finality to the case. The years following death of their beloved daughter and sister hold some ill after-effects, the family steadily becoming unhinged under the weight of their distress. Abigail's withdrawal of affection from her children and husband, her foray into adultery and ultimate flight from the home, Lindsey's alienation, Buckley's resentment, Jack's assurance of Harvey's guilt and self-destructive fixation over the inability to see him brought to justice all push things toward a near-irreparable disarray.
But Susie's mortal death hasn't totally suspended her from contact with her family. Susie, now an amorphous spirit in her own personal heaven, observes their world perceiving their collective grief, sensing each's pain, misery and despair. The spirit Susie actively "accommodate" each of her family members, witnessing her mother's betrayal and abandonment of the family unit, observing her sister Lindsey's bitterness finding some solace with a loyal boyfriend, relating to her brother's sense of being forgotten and, perhaps most poignantly, understanding her father's grief and how it's medicated through his unending obsession for revenge and justice. Susie is even able to "see" George Harvey, the boy he once was, the torturous childhood he endured, his pathological need to kill, his previous and subsequent victims (Susie was neither his first nor his only girl) and the utter remorseless indifference towards his crimes.
The Lovely Bones' popularity is well-merited. There's a sort of absorbing voyeurism to the characters, their lives evocatively illuminated through Sebold's superior prose, engaging hold on the reader and clever arrangement of the narrative. Susie's presence and cognition in relation to each of her family's lives--their innermost thoughts, their reactions and convictions, frustrations and revelations is profoundly entrancing, the attraction of the novel and pursuit through the chapters not so much about seeking a resolution as to be immersed in the almost ethereal atmosphere of the story.