Life after death: on earth and in heaven

By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer

Cover of "Lovely Bones."

In “The Lovely Bones,” Anna Sebold constructs a gripping story about a young girl murdered in the suburbs in 1973 and what she experiences after having left the world she knew. It is: “The story of a life and everything that came after” according to the tagline.

Susie Salmon, age 14 forever, is a bright and insightful girl in her afterlife, much like she was before she was killed.  She watches as her family struggles with the grief, sadness and rage in the aftermath of her death and the evolution of a new family without her. This process guides the book and makes for compelling storytelling as we wonder if the Salmon family will be able to move on, and if they will be together when they do.

Susie moves frequently from watching her father: a man nearly destroyed by her death; her sister: struggling to find an identity other than the sister of a murdered girl; her mother: driven to distraction and self-revelation; and her killer Len Harvey: a man tortured by bloody desire.  Susie also watches fellow students and other family members as well as the detective on her case. She bounces between them, a wandering soul, and we are curious no matter what she is looking at.

Sebold uses the curiosity of the reader about the afterlife and about the solution to a murder to keep us interested and drawn to the story.  Her images of the in-between, the place Susie goes to after she dies, is both intriguing and comforting to the reader with its colors, familiarity and dogs. You have to have dogs in heaven.

Surprisingly, Sebold has not given heaven any religious connotation.  It is more spiritual in the sense that Susie feels there is a different, bigger heaven than where she is, but she can’t go there yet.  Heaven is more of a place where you have the simple joys that may have eluded you in life. For example Susie has a gazebo in the yard, and she lives in a duplex, things she coveted in life, and a place where you can think about your life, and the world, and the world without you in it.

The murder mystery continues loosely throughout the book, but we are left wanting there to be quicker progress, aching for closure.  In that, Sebold has made us feel what the Salmon family feels: frustration, confusion and anger.  This is heightened by the fact that we see Len Harvey along with Susie, something the Salmons cannot do.

Susie struggles with her inability to help her family and the police catch her killer.  We feel Susie’s detached frustration and when it melts into acceptance that life will continue, we are left relieved and upset.  Our societal conditioning makes us want a perfect ending, and what we get is just as good.

The story orbits around the Salmon family and their relationships and experiences following Susie’s death.  We watch as each deals with loss differently; from grandmother to baby brother, all of their lives are changed forever.  As the years pass, we see them grow both together and apart, lean on each other and push each other away.  In the end, the best way to describe the Salmon family is broken with bandages.

Sebold has woven a story of both fantasy and reality.  Her conception of heaven and her depiction of life, both in heaven and on earth, after death keep us riveted and wanting more.  We could read about the Salmon family’s problems and joys forever; we could read about Susie’s thoughts and experiences in heaven forever.

“The Lovely Bones” is the second work Sebold has published.  She has also written “Lucky,” a memoir about her own rape and her life afterward, and the less well received “The Almost Moon,” about a woman who murders her mother and the 24 hours that come after.

The novel has recently been turned into a movie, directed by “The Lord of the Rings” Peter Jackson. It stars Saoirse Ronan as Susie, and Mark Walburg and Rachel Weisz as her parents.

“The Lovely Bones,” 400 pages, Little, Brown and Company, $7.99/$9.99