Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Lovely Bones: a Study in Writerly POV
by Stella Atrium

Lovely_BonesThe Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold was published in 2002 and a Peter Jackson movie followed, so I’m not giving away secrets when I reveal that the narrator is a dead girl. This review includes specific plot details, though, so **spoiler alert**.

The story is about how family members work through grief, and a little about cosmic justice. If the reader recently lost a loved one, reading the novel may be heartrending.

Sebold managed multiple perspectives in each scene since the narrator spies from heaven and tells the story through the eyes of a suburban schoolgirl. The creative use of verb tense and simple sentence structure reinforces the deep but flat POV. Aspiring writers can take a lesson here about how to integrate “double voiced” sentences (see: Mikhail Bakhtin).

After she is murdered, Susie exists in “my own heaven” and frequently views family members, school chums, and the man who murdered her. For the first hundred pages, Sebold restricts the narration to the perspective of a 14-year-old girl who discovers secrets her parents hold dear and also how the world works. For example, she follows the rabbit that carries poison in the garden back to the burrow where the whole family dies.
BeattySusie can spy on individual members of the family and school friends. Later she seems to view the whole town during a specific event (the escape of her murderer) for what each person is doing at that moment.

There are several stories (made into movies) about a return from heaven.

Who can forget Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait? or A Pure Formality with Gérard Depardieu and Roman Polanski?

The Lovely Bones has a strong presence in this crowd, even though the Peter Jackson movie with Mark Wahlberg, Susan Sarandon, and Stanley Tucci did the novel no favors.
FormalityIn her own heaven, Susie can call into existence comforting objects and the company of favorite dogs. She is guided to a tree where her heaven overlaps with the personal heavens of other murder victims, and later as spirits they ride along with the bad guy during his downward spiral.  I’m glad the dénouement didn’t offer a cliché ending, but rather a drawing away – like a boat receding from shore – so heaven is not restricted in scope.

Discovery by other characters for needed plot points is managed deftly. Susie is a passive observer, for example, when her sister Lindsey deduces by the presence of a red scarf that her mother slept with the detective assigned to Susie’s case.

As the months and years pass, Susie’s perspective matures and the insights grow world-weary. While she follows siblings and school chums into adulthood, her connections with them allow her to travel to areas she never knew in life, and see what they were and were to become in the same paragraph. This development feels rather like she has the help of the ghosts of Christmas past and future simultaneously. And much later she flies with her dead grandfather while they chase birds skimming treetops in several states.

Some of the events are sugar-sweet, and the double loss (sister and absent mother) experienced by an inarticulate younger brother is underdeveloped. The reanimation of Susie for sex with the high school sweetheart is silly. I had sex with my high school sweetheart when we were adults and it was not transformative, as she describes.

When the story ends, we have the same number of characters as in the beginning. Nobody commits to an outsider. Even when the sister and her fiancé want to refurbish a strange old house, the owner turns out to be the father of a school chum. Maybe that’s how life works in the suburbs. That feature, however, keeps the story in its own little world, tight and self-abusive.

Aspiring writers who struggle with managing a narrator’s voice or multiple views for the same scene can learn much craft from Alice Sebold.



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