Trigger Warning: The mention of assault, rape, murder, death may be triggering for some readers. Please exercise personal care when reading.
We often take for granted how interconnected our lives are. What happens to one person can wind up toppling the entire structure of a seemingly sound system. This idea of unexpected tragedy strips us of our comfort, making safety in life feel obsolete. Alice Sebold explores this idea of heartbreaking change in her 2002 novel The Lovely Bones, which follows the spirit of 14-year-old Susie Salmon, a girl who was raped and killed by her neighbor, Mr. Harvey one night while walking home from school.
The Dangers of Childhood
The 70s setting plays a large role in the shock-factor in the book. At this time, people were more comfortable in their surroundings, particularly children. Predators were widespread throughout the news, but it never occurred to the modern suburban family that this type of terror could ever reach them. It was common practice to let your children roam the streets freely until curfew.
However, it was also during the 70s that we saw a switch. It seemed that the dangers were creeping in, and a larger awareness began to emerge in Western societies. The structure was breaking on what many assumed to be a place of lasting happiness.
The 1980s and 1990s saw the release of Paula Fass’ Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America, which features a few of the high-profile abduction cases that set off a new found fear of child snatchers lying in wait. That era also saw Ronald Reagan implementing National Missing Children’s Day and milk cartons began featuring the faces of missing children. Those once chipper mornings began with fear, and every night came to a close with that sharp click of the lock.
Unfortunately, Susie was still in a world where this level of fear seemed unfounded. Before the milk cartons and stranger-danger, there was an unsuspecting population living carefree in suburbia. It was this innocent view of the world that unfortunately led to Susie, as well as Mr. Harvey’s other victims, falling into his trap. It’s also why her family and the authorities, despite all the warning signs, never considered Mr. Harvey to be a threat until her death.
Often when we see women and girls brutalized in the media, it isn’t given the righteous voice needed for a thoughtful discussion. The female individual in most cases faces harm for the sake of plot progression, typically to rile up the male protagonist. Her misfortune becomes his own as he sets out to get revenge on the other men who had wronged “his” woman. We never see the female victim’s perspective, however.
This trope is called “fridging“, which is a device that involves the murder, rape, or abuse of a woman in order to create a motivation for a male protagonist to begin seeking revenge on their enemy. The term originated from a Green Lantern comic in which the main hero finds his girlfriend’s body in his fridge.
Sebold avoids this limiting trope for her female heroine. While Susie is already deceased at the beginning of the novel, the novel unashamedly follows her reconciling with the loss of her life. She is not a voiceless victim in a story full of others trying to get revenge for her. The perspective remains with Susie. Even when her spirit has risen, her reflections remain more grounded than ever.
The Power of Voice
Sebold wanted this novel to reflect her own life to some extent. While creating Susie, Sebold found herself motivated to write about violence and how it has become tragically normalized in our daily lives. However, she didn’t want this to be a story simply about tragedy. Instead, she wanted to express loss through the grieving and the grieved. Though she can not physically touch her family, Susie is able to see their lives change as they cope with her death.
It is also notable how Sebold utilized Susie’s posthumous voice to tell this story. In a way, it signals a new eternal chapter in Susie’s life rather than her end. Susie offers an interesting vision of the afterlife. She encounters two types of “heaven”, the one she starts out with and the one that evolves from her shifting desires. She views “heaven” as an individualized experience, not a religious one.
In her first heaven, she is surrounded by all the things she once enjoyed, alongside a mother-like figure and the other murdered girls. As Susie grows throughout the novel, her vision of life and death begins to change. She learns that she can go to a different type of heaven if she lets go of all the things that are troubling her. As her family, Mr. Harvey, and her own grievances about her death begin to slip away, Susie finds her footing in what she calls the “wide, wide heaven”. In this place, all her previous desires are perfected, no longer limited by her ties to Earth.
Those Lovely Bones and Their Binding Fibres
One of the underlying themes of the novel is interconnectedness. There is a heavy focus on the body and all its systems as they come together to construct a physical form. Bones in particular are spotlighted in the novel. Mr. Harvey does not treasure the bones of his human victims. It is likely up to the reader to question why he is repelled from doing this, but Susie has her own interpretation of bones. The “lovely bones” mentioned in the novel’s title are taken from a gripping quote at the end of Sebold’s novel:
“These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections-sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent-that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought 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 body had been my life.”Alice Sebold
From this perspective, Susie sees her family and their stories as the bones making up an earthly presence. While her family may lack her physical bones, the memories that have been constructed with Susie still remain. In essence, this is a lovely affirmation for Susie. As she passes on to a more peaceful state, she is more confident that they will be okay.
Putting Her Soul to Rest
Sebold could have easily made her novel into a crime drama in which Susie is an object of investigation. Her novel instead breaks this trope in a way many readers would consider hopeful and contemplative. She wanted to place more emphasis on what her characters were feeling, forgoing any idea of an action-packed thriller. There is justice found in a non-traditional sense given that Susie and her family are willing to move on after years pass. While Susie has hope that they will meet again, she is content with the progression of their lives. With that little girl’s voice at the heart of the story, Sebold proposes another way of viewing the losses we have faced, even if it’s bittersweet.
For a piece detailing the success of Alice Sebold’s novel as well as its adaptation, click here!
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