Susie Salmon, the latest young murder victim of her neighbor, Mr. Harvey, tells of her own death thus: “When you begin to go over the edge, life receding from you as a boat recedes inevitably from shore, you hold on to death tightly, like a rope that will transport you and you swing on it, hoping only to land away from you are.”
She describes being raped by Harvey in a similar fashion, her prose evocative yet tightly written, and allows the reader to fill in the blanks. Sebold never resorts to hand-wringing or drippy narrative, which is all the more striking when one considers that she writes from her own experience as a rape survivor.
Sebold manages to fashion a very dark subject into a light story; she captures the detached spirit-sense very well. In fact, the over-riding atmosphere of the story is reminiscent of a person’s dissociative state.
It is interesting to note that Sebold bristles at the notion that “The Lovely Bones is “working out” her rape…. In an interview, she says, “First of all, therapy is for therapy. Leave it there. Second, because you’re a rape victim, everyone wants to turn everything you do into something ‘therapeutic’ – oh, I understand, going to the bathroom must be so therapeutic for you!”
She continues, “OK, there aren’t that many women who come out and say they’ve been raped who also write a novel about violence. But when people discover you’re a rape victim, they decide that’s all you are.” (Viner)
On the one hand, the novel does seem to be an exorcism to a degree. The further along I read, the more convinced I was that the author had had a traumatic experience because of Susie’s detachment; Sebold captured the tone perfectly. On the other hand, Susie was supposed to be detached; she was dead.
Also interesting is the concept of a personal heaven Sebold portrays in the novel. The concept itself invites the reader to speculate on her own heaven, but Susie’s heaven seems vague, perhaps because she doesn’t know what she wants. She does seem to feel some responsibility for the world she left behind, as shown in her reflection of the time she’d held the bottle in which her father was building a ship: “And I would wait for him, recognizing the tension of that moment when the world in the bottle depended, solely, on me.”
This rings the chime of “victim’s guilt,” that shame that’s embedded in abuse survivors. That bell tolls in the like-minded reader, binding her to Susie—and perhaps to Sebold as well.
In terms of plot structure, the novel had some difficult moments for me. I was unable to suspend disbelief when Susie possessed Ruth’s body and Ray immediately knew it was her. How could he have known her? They’d only barely started exploring each other when Susie was murdered.
Furthermore, it was disturbing to witness a victim perpetrate what constituted rape on another female, with or without Ruth’s implied consent. Throughout the novel Susie narrates sensations she feels in others’ bodies, and to an extent this is acceptable.
When, for example, she tells of feeling the kisses her mother feels on her neck from the detective, the reader understands that this is her mother, that the lost child would of course seek to feel through her. She is “follow[ing] the physical to try to understand things that were impossible to comprehend” (273).
Susie detaches herself somewhat from the lovemaking, unlike what she does when Ruth and Ray had sex. Whereas her mother “had her own moonlit skin” (197) Ruth disappeared and Susie took over. She tells of feeling “every sensation…but …could not see Ruth” (300).
If there is any question about Ruth’s supposed acquiescence, it is dispelled when Susie tells of feeling Ruth struggling inside the body with her. “It was lust and rage yearning upward” (301). Ruth made way for Susie—after all, Susie had “willed” it, and apparently the reader is supposed to cheer for Susie getting that last one thing she wanted.
She “had been given a gift” (302) and flowers were being thrown at Ruth Connors feet. Afterward, Susie pinches herself and feels nothing, and the reader is taken back to when she was raped and murdered; the sense of dissociation is strong here, and while, yes, she is leaving Ruth’s body, the description is eerily similar to that of the rape.
I would also have liked to see more development of the problem of the mother’s abandonment. The only time we see consequences is when Buckley is antagonistic toward the mother when she returns home, and even that is barely addressed.
The fact is that the mother left her surviving children, communicating via the occasional cheery post-card, during a time when they needed her and no one really holds her accountable.
In spite of these troubling issues, Sebold’s story is engaging and compulsively readable and her personal history adds to its poignancy. Nevertheless, I am baffled at the critical acclaim this story received. Is it because Susie emerged as a triumphant survivor and was able to move on?
It’s disquieting that no one mentions how Susie mirrors her own abuse, and no reviewer seems to be bothered by the rather lame reunion of the mother with the remaining family. I found no mention anywhere of either of these issues, only praise for the story. This in itself feels dissociative and unreal, like I see a dragon in the living room and everyone else is walking around it but pretending it’s not there.
Overall, the story doesn’t ring with the honesty that, say, Amy Hempel’s stories do. How can there be truth if the characters don’t fully reside within their own skins? Susie spends nearly the whole tale suspended above the other characters, and she has no real grasp of her “own” heaven.
Sebold denies the connection between the story and her own experience, yet the story itself points to it, simply by virtue of things not quite being worked out. So while the style and the lack of melodrama are both laudable, the story reads like an ill-conceived fantasy by a person who’s trying to make sense of her own trauma. And I wonder what it is about our collective narrative that we applaud Susie’s perpetuation of victimization. Is it okay because she was a victim herself? Is this the only way she could find her heaven? I wonder how Ruth feels about that.