I, at least, am not a person who would usually even bother to pick up a book narrated by a dead person. Unlike many I know who like to believe that the body is a prison, a limitation, and that our real selves will somehow escape once we are unfettered from the organic material that makes us up, I think that we are incredibly fortunate to be embodied consciousness, to be animals among animals. I believe we can think because we have brains, can talk because we have a tongue and mouth and breathe; in short, I believe our bodies are ourselves, and that even if there were some sort of heaven, we would not be able to be the beings that we really are were we to go there. Indeed, I think those who talk of and yearn for escape from the body into some sort of non-earthly paradise are showing a kind of contempt for the very beings we are, for the very condition we find ourselves in.
And yet, once I began to read this novel (with the narrator situated somewhere between earth and heaven), I could not put it down, and I find that I have to agree with the raves on the jacket cover—that this is a beautiful book, somehow even profound and revelatory.
Let me begin by quoting a kind of prefatory paragraph, and then attempt to explain why this is such a good book.
And so, I suppose, we are to think of Susie, trapped in a nice ‘heavenly’ life—able to see her family, her friends, even in some very slight and marginal ways to interact with them, and yet isolated from them by her own death. At first this book and Susie’s condition seem to be simply contrivances for a sort of mystery; with her help and her ability to subtly guide her family, the murderer will be found and brought to justice. So, Susie is a sort of heavenly sleuth.
Inside the snow globe on my father’s desk, there was a penguin wearing a red-and-white-striped scarf. When I was little my father would pull me into his lap and reach for the snow globe. He would turn it over, letting all the snow collect on the top, then quickly invert it. The two of us watched the snowfall gently around the penguin. The penguin was alone in there, I thought, and I worried for him. When I told my father this, he said, ‘Don’t worry, Susie; he has a nice life. He’s trapped in a perfect world.’
Instead of a mystery and a search for justice, however, I think this book is really about how deaths, especially violent ones, affect the living—how the lives of the living are suddenly and completely transformed by the death. This is not really a book about transcending death or a story about the marvels of heaven; Susie’s death simply allows her to be a fly-on-the-wall narrator of how her death impacts the living.
Susie has a brilliant younger sister and a much younger brother, and these two children are as certainly victims of her murderer as Susie herself. Their father, driven nearly insane by the death of his oldest child, is utterly and completely preoccupied with the task of exposing her murderer—so absorbed by Susie’s death that he unintentionally turns away from his living wife and children. Lindsey, the sister, feeling intense guilt that she is alive while her sister is dead, identifies with her father and his relentless search. Neither Lindsey nor her father seem to have any understanding of the existential turmoil of the mother or of her desperate attempts to move beyond the death and to find meaning for the living.
Quite apart from chronicling the affects of her death on her friends and family, Susie’s narration of the book allows Sebold to talk about how everyday life is a kind of battlefield for girls and women, with neither big cities nor small towns being places that are safe for girls and women to walk. And I have no doubt that this is one of the main reasons that Sebold wrote this book. But beyond that warning and her own consternation about how the world we live in has become such a dangerous one, she seems to want her readers to understand how guilt and grief and even the desire for vindication or retribution can be paths into labyrinths of self-absorption. It may seem that intense love for a lost one is anything but absorption with the self, but it can absent one from the cares and concerns and obligations of this life as certainly as selfishness or ambition.
Eventually, we find that Susie is not quite in heaven, but instead in a kind of limbo between heaven and earth, trying to shepard her family to some new state of being that will allow forgetfulness, even joy and happiness in spite of her tragic death. “…I was beginning to wonder if this had been what I’d been waiting for, for my family to come home, not to me anymore but to one another with me gone.” While loving her father and his ceaseless struggles to expose the man who murdered her, she begins to see how that struggle causes him to abandon his living children and his wife, just as grief and loss cause her mother to more literally abandon Susie’s ghostly father and her living children.
Of course, there are ways in which the book is a mystery, and I’m not about to give away the twists and turns of plot that lead finally to a kind of resolution. Many, even most, of the readers I have talked to about this book have told me that they loved the first half, but were less enthusiastic about the second half. I think that has to do with a basic difficulty in writing, namely the attempt authors make to cover too much time, to tie up all loose ends, to finish the stories of all the main characters. The first half of the book covers quite a short space of time, a few days, a few weeks, at most a very few months; the second half tries to take us quickly forward a decade and more. We feel rushed, sense that the author feels rushed as well. Better to have told us less, to have settled for incompleteness and the uncertainty of life.
Still, flawed or not, this is a very good book, and certainly takes us beyond vindictiveness and loss. In Susie’s words:
These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections—sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent—that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life. My father looked at the daughter who was standing there in front of him. The shadow daughter was gone.