Back Bay Books, 2004 reprint of 2002 original, 328 pages, C$19.95 pb, ISBN 0-316-16881-5
I’m really not the right person to comment on this book. This won’t be news to anyone who’s read more than a few of my reviews, but even after years of solid counter-examples, I’m still faintly dubious about mainstream fiction books that take up some aspects of genre fiction. The reading protocols are often too different to mesh together, and the plot density is generally too sparse to keep me interested. I am not, after all, a reader interested in prose for prose’s sake.
But The Lovely Bones received its share of acclaim, was once featured on CBC’s long-lamented Open Book TV book club, and can now be purchased second-hand for next to nothing. When Peter Jackson announced he was shooting the movie adaptation, the book went on my embargoed-until-I-see-the-movie waiting list. Such an embargo usually proves beneficial in that the book is (almost) always better than the movie, and given the disappointment that was Jackson’s adaptation, there was a lot to enjoy about the carefully-controlled original work.
But we’ll talk about the book/movie comparison in a moment. What you need to know about The Lovely Bones is simple: It’s narrated from the hereafter by the victim of a brutal crime. Suzie Salmon is, in most respects, your happy mid-seventies teenage girl: stable family, fine neighbourhood, doing OK in school, on the verge of experiencing her first romantic relationship. Then she is murdered.
It’s what happens next that makes The Lovely Bones so special: Suzie tells us about what happens to her family, her friends and her community as the echoes of her murder continue to reverberate. There is a police investigation, but it is not a mystery. There are details about the afterlife and some proof of interaction between the living and the dead, but this is not a fantasy story. Sebold is really using genre devices to explore a mainstream drama of grief and acceptance. In the wake of Suzie’s disappearance, people cope in various ways with the wrongness of her death. The murderer escapes detection for a while; her family is driven apart; her friends commemorate her and then eventually forget. Even Suzie herself has a few unresolved issues, and the novel doesn’t end until she can let go of her own existence.
Now that the book has been brought to the big screen, a new group of readers will come to the book having seen the film, and pleasantly discover how much better the written version is. This is interesting to discuss in the ways it shows how finely Sebold controls her material compared to Jackson’s ham-fisted heightening of every conceivable melodramatic hook. In the book, Suzie’s death is minimally described; after all, we don’t need the details to fill in for ourselves that it’s a terrible thing: the rest of the book does that. In the movie, though, Jackson milks the tension leading to her death to a degree where it becomes overdone and ridiculous. Sebold seldom insists and her book is both subtler and stronger for it. Meanwhile, Jackson rearranges events to milk a suspense that will never be satisfied, heightens the sentimental meaning of a few details (such as the pictures that Suzie takes, never a strong plot point in the book) and doesn’t seem to realize the importance of tonal unity. As a result, the movie version of The Lovely Bones is at times sad, horrific, comic, suspenseful, wondrous and dramatic, with little thematic unity between its emotional moods. But the worst thing about the movie, which is directly relevant to the book, is how it tries to create a genre picture out of a mainstream novel that is not really interested in being a genre novel. The police investigation is heightened to a point where viewers feel cheated when it doesn’t conventionally pan out; whereas Sebold doesn’t really dangles this possibility in front of her readers in the first place. The same thing goes for the ghost-story elements: While the film plays with the idea that Suzie can have some influence in leading her family to her murderer, this isn’t as much of a concern in the book.
Amusingly, while the movie fails by being more extreme than the book, the book actually contains at least two strong scenes that were deemed unsuitable for the film: Without spoiling anything outright, let’s just say that the police investigator serves another purpose than not catching the killer, and that Suzie’s final reunion with her boyfriend doesn’t stop where it does in the film. It’s easy to see the screenwriters looking at those scenes and deciding that there was no way they could work on-screen. They were probably right, but it’s a shame that didn’t realize that the same was true for a number of other things.
But talks of “ruining” the book are only valid if, somehow, you don’t recognize that the book is still there, waiting for readers just as it did before the film was released. In fact, reading the novel made me understand better why the film wasn’t working, and who to blame. (As a bonus, you will “hear” the novel’s narration in Saoirse Ronan’s voice, probably the best thing about seeing the movie in the first place.) Sebold intentionally withholds the kind of closure that you would see in genre stories. Suzie’s ghost doesn’t tritely lead police investigators to the killer, for instance. The closure in The Lovely Bones is of a different sort, not the heightened artificial closure that screenwriters are told to put at the end of their third act, but the Kübler-Rossian fifth stage of acceptance and letting go. And it works in ways that genre novels usually don’t, thanks to clean prose and mature storytelling.
So it is that I’m still struck by the quiet dramatic power of the novel, even a novel for which I was thoroughly spoiled and more interested in taking apart narratively. The Lovely Bones, so twee and overdone on the big screen, is better seen as a novel that leaps across natural readership boundaries, making use of genre conventions to its own purposes and, along the way, delivering a reading experience quite unlike anything else. This coming from someone who’s so far away from the intended audience of the book, imagine how it may work on you.