One of the primal human needs is a need to matter. In life, how we are validated and viewed by others often comes from our family relationships. And when someone’s sense of mattering is bound up in being part of a family that breaks up, everyone involved has to redefine themselves. This makes families under stress a rich dynamic for storytellers.
The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, is a great example of how the human need to matter can be set out in a story. In this lyrical, graceful novel, a young girl is murdered. The ‘bones’ of the title refer not to something connected to the murder, but how the murder reveals the hidden bones of the family and what it takes for those bones to heal.
The opening lines of the novel set up a dramatic plot question immediately:
‘My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.’
This is a compelling opening. It would be difficult to stop reading.
The narrator speaks about the night of her murder at the hands of a neighbor, mentioning in passing that ‘Franny said these questions (about whether the narrator could have avoided being murdered) were fruitless.’ This raises the question, who is Franny?
What comes out of this opening chapter is the details of how the narrator died. This leads to the opening sentence of the second chapter:
‘When I first entered heaven I thought everyone saw what I saw.’
Another wonderful, dramatic sentence guaranteed to keep someone reading. That’s a prime goal of the opening sentence of a chapter.
The set up for this heaven the narrator has entered is that it’s a kind of intermediary heaven. She can observe her family and friends, and what she ‘sees’ and experiences in this heaven is what she desires to. It slowly comes out that the narrator is in a lower state of heaven because her sense of mattering and identity is so fully invested in who she was on earth. She’s not ready yet to move on yet. That frames an important question for the novel: when and how will the narrator be ready to move on?
What she wants is also framed as questions:
Mr. Harvey (her murderer) dead; she living, in part because of her to know what it would have been like to really kiss Ray, her first but not quite boyfriend.
Getting answer to those questions requires reading to the end of the novel.
Because this heaven the narrator inhabits is new to her, and us, she has a reason to relate the details of how this heaven operates; who populates it; her understanding of it; her place in this new world.
As an observer, she can know their thoughts and feelings at all times. This gives the narrator a perfect position to see how her death affects her family, friends, even the murderer.
The family left behind is a father, mother, younger sister, toddler younger brother, and a family dog. Everyone in the family is devastated by what’s happened, but the narrator’s omniscient viewpoint allows her to set out how each family member is affected. The father is consumed with finding the murderer. The mother is at first consumed by false hope that the daughter is still alive. The younger sister finds herself defined in school as the sister of the murdered girl. The younger brother isn’t quite old enough to understand what’s happening. The family dog loathes the murderous neighbor, cuing the father to who the murderer is.
As the family deals with not knowing what happened, the detectives have a reason to interview and investigate everyone connected to Sarah. That means Ray, from India, already something of an outcast because of his race, is an immediate suspect because of the time he’d been spending with Suzie. Ray as a person is shaped by this experience in a way that he’ll carry the rest of his life.
On the night Susie was murdered, another young student, Ruth, was walking by the field where Susie died. Ruth is aware of Susie’s spectral self leaving earth; this opens within Ruth a life-long awareness of what other women and children were experiencing at the moment of their deaths. Susie’s death imprints Ruth’s sense of mattering deeply. Ruth’s life becomes about cataloging the final moments of many innocent victims.
Ruth and Ray form a bond because the identity of each becomes so enmeshed with Susie’s death.
Lindsey, the younger sister, is also powerfully affected. When Lindsey goes to a camp for gifted kids, the kids unknowingly decide to play a game about how to commit the perfect murder. Susie observes that she ‘sat in her room on the old couch my parents had give up on and worked on hardening herself.’
While the father seeks to find something to go with his intuition that Harvey is the killer, the mother of the family finds herself attracted to the lead detective. On the night her obsessed husband is mistaken for the killer and attacked, ending up in the hospital, she has meaningless sex with the detective, then self-exiles herself from the family, as Susie observes, ‘… my mother was granted her most temporal wish. To find a doorway out of her ruined heart, in merciful adultery.’
Every dynamic in this family has to be redefined and find a new equilibrium. And those changes happen over a period of years, reported by the omniscient narrator. Even the killer’s inner compulsion’s and methods are examined.
Ruth and Ray become close; Ruth even offers to pretend to be Susie so Ray can ‘kiss’ Susie.
The detective grieves because he comes to realize Suzie’s father was right about Mr. Harvey being a murderer, and he could have found the evidence if he’d just searched the killer’s house.
Slowly, slowly, slowly the family regains a new equilibrium as the children grow older and a grandmother comes to live with the family.
As the novel nears its climax, Ruth and Ray are close to the sink-hole where Mr. Harvey disposed of Susie’s body, Mr. Harvey is driving through the old neighborhood again, the father of the family has a heart attack, and Lindsey and Samuel find an abandoned house in the woods nearby. It seems the missing ‘bones’ of Susie will be found and Mr. Harvey captured.
Instead, Susie is able to use her connection to Ruth to move into Ruth’s body, while Ruth goes to Inter Heaven and meets some of the women and girls she’s written about. Meanwhile, Susie convinces Ray that she’s taken over Ruth’s body and they have sex, and the exiled wife decides to return home when she finds out about her husband’s illness. She can’t stay long, but she has fulfilled one of the earthly desires that has kept her enmeshed with those she left behind.
Meanwhile, Mr. Harvey drives away.
When the exiled wife learns her husband is in the hospital, she returns home. He has come to the realization that ‘Only recently had his wounded synapses allowed him to name it. He had been falling in love all over again.’ With his ex-wife. When she returns to a transformed family, she and her husband reconnect.
The family member who struggles the most with the mother’s return is Buckley, the youngest son who took on the role of taking care of his father. He can be angry that both the mother left and that she returned.
The mother goes to Susie’s room, and while Susie listens, she says, “I love you, Susie.” The mother has healed from her grief; and Susie, who needed to hear those words from her mother, also is healed in a way she did not expect.
Susie realizes, ‘I was done yearning for them, needing them to yearn for me. Though I still would. Always.’
Susie observes of her family now, ‘These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connection-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. That 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.’
Ruth, who ‘had been a girl haunted and now she would be a woman haunted. First by accident and now by choice.’
Susie is now free to move on to Heaven, but what will become of Mr. Harvey? In the closing pages of the novel, Mr. Harvey, now an old man, finds a young girl at a snowy bus stop going into some trees to have a cigarette. He moves in for the kill, but when the girl steps away, an icicle comes down and end Mr. Harvey’s life. His body will not be found for many, many months, just as his victims died alone.
On the last page of the novel, a charm from Susie’s bracelet is found by a man who gives it to his wife.
“This little girl’s grown up by now,” she said.
I wish you all a long and happy life.
Susie is free now. She and her family have redefined themselves.
Writers seeking to develop dramatic characters should find ways to strip away from their characters that which gives them a sense of mattering in this world, while creating characters strong enough to gain a new definition of themselves.
This is what makes story characters so different from real life, where so many people become identified with their wounds and a sense that they don’t matter. Powerful, popular stories are often about characters who will not allow themselves to be defined by others.
Bill Johnson is author of A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling, a writing workbook, and web master of http://www.storyispromise.com, a web site that explores principles of storytelling through reviews of popular movies. Spirit is now available on Amazon Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004V020N0