”The Lovely Bones”
Author : Alice Sebold (2002)
When I pick up a book, the first few lines decide whether I’ll continue with it or not. If they hold my attention, I take it home with me. There’s so much to read and so little time that I hate mucking around something that is uninteresting, however profound it’s words might be.
The first few lines of the prologue of The Lovely Bones go like this…. “My name was Salmon, like the fish; my first name – Suzie. I was fourteen when I was murdered, in December of 1973…”
Now wouldn’t that hold your attention? Mine got tungsten arc welded to those lines. But here’s the thing – I cannot leave it because it is riveting and at the same time, reading it is excruciatingly painful – a constant reminder of the darkest depths in human behaviour. The book lies there on my coffee table, to be pried open now and then and a few pages read, with the help of a stiff drink.
The lovely bones is about a 14-year old girl who is brutally raped and murdered by her neighbour, an older, seemingly mild mannered man named Harvey. The story is narrated by the dead girl who documents in excruciating detail her rape, murder and the aftermath, ostensibly from heaven.
The first thing that struck me was that, had it not been written in 2002, I’d have thought that the author had deliberately chosen to name the rapist ‘Harvey’. The other thing was the protracted and utterly vivid depiction of the assault which makes the book a very agonizing read.
The human body is a robust mechanism. When confronted by mortal danger, it can put up a fight that can make a killing – by anything other than a firearm – particularly hard. Suzie Salmon, is a hard kill. She takes us through it, blow by blow – her resistence, the scent of the killer’s cologne and then when he’s close, his fetid breath, the raw earthy smell of the hole he has dug for her, the eerie haze of the early evening through which she can hardly make out his face, even though he is right on top of her.
As Mr Harvey is pounding away inside Suzie, she makes her mind wander, in a sort of defensive reflex. She tells us about thinking of school, how she is a member of the school chess club, how she adores the poetry of Juan Ramon Jiminéz and how her English teacher says if you want to improve your handwriting, don’t use ruled sheets.
“There are no ruled sheets today,” she whispers to herself hoarsely as the rapist keeps biting savagely at her budding nipples until they are raw and bleeding. Today is stark, today is bare, today is uncharted.
I can identify with Suzie’s desperate need to numb her mind with mundane, everyday things, in a detached matter-of-fact manner. I have experienced being in a similar situation, while enduring hazing in boarding school, though I have to admit what I went through cannot even remotely compare with the Suzie Salmon’s torment.
But while my experience was no match against her’s, my withdrawal into mundanity – as a defence mechanism against the agony and humiliation that I felt raining down on me – was very similar. If I had dwelt on what was being done to me in real time, I wouldn’t have been able to handle the trauma. I was even younger than Suzie – thirteen, when I went to boarding school.
Alice Sebold knows sexual assault intimately. I read a review of her 1999 memoir Lucky. It begins with an account of the her own rape. While she was a freshman at Syracuse University, Sebold was brutally assaulted by a serial rapist and murderer.
She survived and thus the title ‘Lucky’ – drawn from a comment made by the investigating officer, who told her she was lucky not to have been killed and dismembered. The review says Lucky – like Lovely Bones – is an unflinchingly candid book which also details Sebold’s battles with the aftermath of the trauma, including an addiction to heroin.
Dark literature – from a dark, battered mind.
I am on the lookout for Lucky. I am also on the lookout for Alice Sebold’s third book The Almost Moon. Reviews tell me that it is about a woman who, on a sudden impulse, murders her mother – an agoraphobic suffering from severe dementia – by suffocating her with a towel.
—————— Post Script——————
The Lovely Bones has been made into a movie, directed by CGI wizard, Peter Jackson (Lord of the rings, The Hobbit, King Kong) and starring Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz and Stanley Tucci. Tucci was nominated for the supporting role Oscar for his part as the killer, Mr Harvey. If you have seen Stanley Tucci in ‘The Pelican Brief’, you will agree he can be a very scary guy.
The role of Suzie Salmon is played by Irish actress, Saoirse Una Ronan, one of the most beautiful women I have ever set eyes on.
The movie poster
Saoirse Una Ronan – Is there a Murphy’s Law which says that the more unpronounceable a woman’s name is, the more beautiful she is bound to be?
Alice Sebold – her brain is a theme park for darkness and chaos
—————— Post Post-Script——————
As for the book, I am just half way through the assault and have a long ways to go. Meanwhile, my mind has to muse, so this.
About the movie, I haven’t actually seen it. I have watched clips on YouTube though. (I very rarely do all those things that I tell you I do).