I don’t always chase up the book of a movie before I watch it, but in this case, Alice Sebold’s book was such a bestseller, even I’d heard of it. (I have so many books of my own that are still unread, I’ve kind of held off on reading new books, which means that there are many, many books out there which I haven’t had a chance to catch up on yet.)
I’m hoping to see the movie this evening, but I thought I would get my thoughts down on paper about the book before the movie affects my view of the book. (Too late to stop it going the other way.)
For those who haven’t heard of this book yet or somehow missed the hype about the movie, the story is pretty straightforward. A 14-year-old girl, Susie Salmon, is murdered by a man living near her house and the story goes on to talk about how her shattered family survive over the coming days, months and years. The twist with this story is that we know what’s going on because it’s narrated by Susie herself, speaking to us from heaven.
Susie’s heaven is a rather unusual place where she has an almost God’s eye view of the world and can watch everything that’s going on. The cleverness of this set-up is that in much the same way as her family have to get used to life without Susie, Susie is just as much going through her own process of having to let go of her family to go to Heaven proper.
The story is quite engaging – in fact, almost too engaging – as a father, I really struggled to get through the first couple of chapters, describing Susie’s murder. The detail isn’t super-horrific (while the concepts are borrowed from serial-killer novels, this is not meant to be one of those stories), but there’s enough for us to imagine it all in our head.
But the story gradually moves on from there to cover the individual members of the family, as they go through their various stages of coping. In addition, there is the matter of Susie’s killer, Mr Harvey, who successfully evades capture by the police at the time, but does not evade the suspicion of Susie’s Dad and sister.
How you respond to this novel will most likely be determined by how you respond to Alice Sebold’s prose and characters. The characters are all very well drawn and act in ways that felt completely real for me (under their particular circumstances). I had more trouble with the writing style – Susie narrates like no other 14-year-old I know. Sometimes she sounds a bit like a teenager girl, but most of the time she sounds like a novelist you’d find in the literature section. Is the idea that she’s grown rather worldly-wise after all the years in heaven when she finally tells the story? Or is it because we wouldn’t find the story half as interesting if it was narrated by a real 14-year-old? I’m not sure.
The ending of this story is a curious mixture – many of the plot strands get tied up in a rather satisfying (and almost cliched) way. But other plot strands get tied up in less conventional ways. And I’ll leave it as vague as that. If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about.
From a Christian point of view, this is obviously not a Christian portrayal of life after death. There’s no God. In fact, Heaven is just a kind of place that you turn into whatever you want it to be. If Susie imagines it to be like her school, then it is. The only thing she doesn’t have there is her family. So in a sense, her life is just as unsettled after death as it was before. It doesn’t sound like that great a place, to be honest, and Sebold soon gives us describing it after a while and focuses more on what’s going back on earth.
In the end, the afterlife seems to come off as a poor second to the real world, with the only relief being that you can’t really die again. This is very different from the Christian perspective of an afterlife where we have an unbroken connection with God and with fellow believers.
But for a really interesting take on grief, family and death, this novel is well worth a look.
4 out of 5.