The Lovely Bones

Oh, my heart shies from the sorrow.
I’m as puzzled as a newborn child
I’m as riddled as the tide.
Should I stand amid the breakers?
Or shall I lie with death, my bride?

– This Mortal Coil, “Song to the Siren”
(from The Lovely Bones soundtrack)

As we already know from the film’s trailer, The Lovely Bones revolves around the murder of Susie Salmon, a young girl just entering her teenage years. Among other things, it’s a murder-mystery and an unconventional one at that, not only because we already know the fate of the protagonist but because the identity of her murderer is not kept from us, either. Even for those seeing the film cold, both pieces of information – usually held in suspense in order to keep the audience guessing – are revealed early on. So, if there’s any mystery here, it lies elsewhere. Not so much in the “who” or even the “why” but, rather, the how ...

More specifically: how a family, including the victim herself – who also serves as the film’s narrator – finds the strength to persevere in the face of life’s extinction. Since her family is not unlike most other suburban families of the 1970s (or today, for that matter), they will desperately hold on to the belief in a world that makes sense. And while that faith had been sorely tested earlier, when Susie’s brother stopped breathing, turning a deathly blue as he was rushed to the hospital, that faith remained unchanged, perhaps even became fortified, by the experience.

I remember the light in my parents’ eyes.
The relief.
We weren’t those people:
those unlucky people to whom bad things happen for no reason.

As it turns out, that emergency – “the worst thing that ever happened to us as a family” – was but a prelude to the main event, the focus of this film’s story. And it propels both our narrator and her family into the pit of despair, fighting a world that refuses to make sense much less sustain one’s faith in the just. Unfortunately, not all (re)viewers have appreciated this aspect of the film, walking away from the theater in confusion. Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post, for example, has complained:

What is “The Lovely Bones” about? I still don’t know. If it means to be a portrait of a family coming apart after an unspeakable loss, then why introduce a blowsy, boozy grandmother played for broad comic effect by Susan Sarandon? If it’s a taut game of cat-and-mouse between a grieving father and the creepy [neighbor] next door, why not let it be that and let the metaphysics take care of themselves?

Since the knot around which this murder mystery is entwined concerns the question of how they contend with Susie’s death, it cannot be solved by merely identifying, or even apprehending, the one responsible for taking her. Such “resolutions” can only magnify the unthinkable, bringing the victim and her family face-to-face with Evil itself. In the end, merely knowing the identity of the perpetrator, the reasons for his behavior, or even having him brought to justice, does nothing to attenuate the blot that has come to dominate their lives. As for the “confusing” grandmother, she is more central to the story than might be immediately apparent, for there’s more than a hint of Persephone and Psyche in this story: the aftermath of Susie’s murder is defined as much by absent men as it is by the women whose lives have been thrown out-of-balance by her death.

Denied the familiar landmarks to guide us during this journey through Hades, it is the structure of the story itself that provides us with the clues that point to the answer to the mystery (and confusions) of The Lovely Bones. They can be found throughout the film’s story – like crumbs strewn along a forest path – left behind in the hopes that we will recognize them, and follow. One such clue is offered in the film’s opening lines, one of Susie’s earliest memories from childhood.

I remember being really small.
Too small to see over the edge of a table.
There was this snow globe.
And I remember the penguin who lived inside the globe.
He was all alone in there and I worried for him.

Her father, seeing the interest Susie has taken in the lone penguin, comes over to comfort his daughter.

Don’t worry, kiddo.
He has a nice life.
He’s trapped in a perfect world.

Trapped by Perfection

Another set of clues is provided by what immediately follows: a montage of her parents’ lives as seen through her mother’s nighttime reading. Earlier, precisely when Susie was troubled by the penguin trapped in paradise, her mother was similarly captivated: a voracious reader, eager to divine the answer to life’s most enduring questions. We see Albert Camus’ Exile and the Kingdom in her hand, the meaning of which is clear, even if we haven’t yet had the benefit of sampling its pages. On her bookshelf sits Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, an account of one man’s spiritual path towards enlightenment; next to it is Virginia Woolf’s classic To the Lighthouse, about the yearnings that underlie the suffocations of life in a male-dominated world, including a young woman’s quest to find her own voice, even as she battles the corrosive accusations that continually attack her from without, and within.

Twelve years later, and closer to the present, we see that the collection of books has changed. No longer is the shelf at her bedside populated by the luminaries of the past, and no longer does it give evidence of an eagerness to make sense of one’s worldly existence. Instead, they seem to mark the transition to (suburban) motherhood: in place of Albert Camus is a stack of cookbooks; manuals and how-to guides on gardening have replaced Virginia Woolf. The marital bed, previously the site of youthful passion, has merely become a place of the worn and familiar. As her husband lays asleep by her side, like a baby, Exile and the Kingdom has been supplanted by Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care.

We are not told what to make of the shift. All we see is the transformation. It could equally be a sign of her alienation or an effort to achieving a semblance of grounding after her “heady” pursuits. Whatever the case may be, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that the life has been sucked out of them (for her, the burning curiosity to know; for him, the vitality of living) and wonder, too, whether it also signals a troubled – or at least unresolved – relationship with the life they have built for themselves, stunned that the enthusiastic dreams of youth would lead to such vacuous tepidness.

Whatever the transition is, it is with this (second) scene that our story begins …

The fact is: Susie’s parents are not the only ones stuck in the suburban ideal. Their neighbor – the man who will become Susie’s murderer – is also obsessed by visions of domestic perfection. Quite literally. His hobby is dedicated to building dollhouses, miniature homes within which the ideal family can be found. As we watch him at work on those fabrications of preciousness, it’s also clear his attachment is fraught with conflict. It’s a hobby, yes, but one that consumes an inordinate amount of time and energy, his attention to detail a symptom of something darker that lies beneath, as if his beautiful miniatures were desperate attempt at escape, and release.

And yet, when examined within the panorama of his suburban environment, this kind of hobby does not seem to be that uncommon or unusual. After all, Susie’s father is a hobbyist, too. He also likes to make miniatures. Tiny ships carefully inserted into glass bottles for display. (Trapped in a perfect world.) Given the amount of time and energy that’s obviously channeled into this favored pastime, evident in the massive collection of bottles perched on the shelves that line his den, Susie will tease him about being a “closet” scale-modeler.

Susie: Did Mom know before she married you?
Father: Hmm?
Susie: About your obsession?
Father: Susie, hobbies are healthy. They teach you things.
Susie: Like what?
Father: Like if you start something, you finish it. You don’t stop until you get it right. If you don’t get it right, you start over again and you keep on going as long as you have to. That’s the way it is. That’s what you do. It’s perfectly normal. You know, Grampy taught me to do this, and now I’m teaching you. We’re creating something here. For us. Something special.
Susie: I know.
Father: You’re my first-mate, Susie-Q. One day, all of this will be yours.

It’s not clear whether this explanation vindicates his use of time in Susie’s eyes. However, for him, the hobby is an honorable family tradition, one he intends to pass on to his daughter. And while she hasn’t quite accepted it as her own, resisting this form of paternal recruitment, she is happy to spend time with him and his bottled ships, sharing in the the delight of witnessing carefully constructed models unfurl inside their glassy prisons. The fact that Susie is there to share the experience certainly helps give a focus to his joy, one that circulates ambiguously between the model ship and his daughter. “Now, that is a thing of beauty.”

Such is the fate of perfection: to be bottled-up and admired from a distance.

Susie-Q

“I like the way you walk,
I like the way you talk, Susie Q
You say that you’ll be true, baby I love you, Susie Q
You say that you’ll be mine, baby all the time, Susie Q.
Oh Susie Q, baby I love you.”

The crime at the center of The Lovely Bones, however, is not merely the trap of perfection. There is, after all, a certain form of “protection” afforded to those condemned to this form of imprisonment, a lesson Susie had already learned from her father. Instead, the crime is the violation of the bounds of this perfection, the desire to possess the vaunted ideal, to make her wholly one’s own. So, while Susie is entranced by the world as it appears through her camera, she remains blissfully unaware of the way in which she becomes the object of desire in another’s eyes. Ironically, then, it is precisely during one of her jaunts through the neighborhood with her camera, when her parents are talking to the man from next door, that Susie will first come to her murderer’s attention. “Hey, look at me!”

As we soon learn, an alarm clock fortifies the division between his night and day, between the light of civil appearance and the shadow-time during which his obsessions are allowed free reign. With the blinds closed, and under cover of night, what has been repressed – or merely deferred – is finally permitted to emerge, and he will make elaborate plans for a different kind of structure, one designed to lure the girl who has caught his mind’s eye. For if his elaborate dollhouses pay homage to an ideal that exceeds his grasp, they also give voice to a certain form of emptiness. Inert and lifeless, they are unable to “do” anything other than sit quietly, passively waiting for another’s admiration. Susie, on the other hand, represents the opposite. She is, in fact, life itself. In his eyes, at least, for it is as much a commentary on the (hollowed) state of his existence as anything else.

He will build her a different kind of abode, one sunken beneath the cornfield bordering their neighborhood. (He will say it’s about the art of concealment. And patience.) He will call this subterranean prison a “clubhouse” and invite her there to sample its hidden treasures. It is, after all, a miniaturized structure different from his dollhouses, but one that plays on the fascination he shares with the child: a place of one’s own, filled with trinkets and toys. It is a replica of the adult world, but transformed – and distorted – by the aura of a magical fortress sufficient unto itself.

Once there, Susie will struggle between suspicion and the curiosity he has so carefully sought to elicit in her. Each of her worries and hesitations will be assuaged. (“Cool, huh? I thought you kids would like a place of your own. You know, to hang out.”) But as his behavior becomes more strange, straining under tortured breath, her ambivalence will shift to one that vacillates between a desperate desire to flee and the courtesy and respect she has been taught to show her elders. When the balance of forces finally tips in her favor, rather than his, it’s already too late …

If I hadn’t been so distracted, I would’ve realized something was wrong,
‘cuz that sort of thing gives me the skeevies.
But I was too busy thinking about the length of Ray Singh’s eye lashes.
I had counted each one in library time while he was reading Abelard and Heloise.
The most seriously tragic love story. Ever.

Obviously, and despite what she may think, Susie is not to be blamed for what happened. The trap – or, more precisely, the dollhouse – had already been set. The ideal of perfection had already created an empty space which only “she” could fill. And if it hadn’t been Susie, it would have been someone else.

Strange as it might seem, Susie’s grandmother can also be seen as an instigator in all of this, if not for her fate at the murderer’s hand, then at least for her distraction. For, while browsing at the mall’s bookstore, Susie had spotted Ray with his family and, hiding behind the latest in fashion advice, she would gaze longingly at the object of her affection. Her grandmother, having chosen another source of inspiration – Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch – would see this as an opportunity to nudge the bashful one beyond the safety of girlish desire, even though some would say she was much too young for the older boy.

Grandma: He’s cute … have you kissed him yet?
Susie: [shakes head]
Grandma: Why not? You like him, he likes you. What’s the hold up?
Susie: I’m just afraid I won’t be any good at it.
Grandma: My first kiss was with a grown man.
Susie: [shocked surprise]
Grandma: You’re not going to tell on me, are you?
Susie: Of course not! [pause] What was it like?
Grandma: The kiss? Oh, it was wonderful. Beautiful. Glorious. Took me a long time before I realized that a kiss like that, it only happens once. Suze, just have fun kid.

But as we already know, the events that were to follow were anything but fun …

Yet, sure enough, on the very day of her murder, Susie and Ray will have their first conversation, as if, in some strange way, one event would give way to the other. Until then, their relationship was merely one of admiration from the safety of distance but, as she walks out of Film Club making fun of the man in blackface playing Othello, Ray – also shrouded in black – will approach and ask what she thought about the Moor. (“Who?”) As it begins to dawn on her that he is an fan of Shakespeare’s play, Susie will fumble to find the words that do justice to his admiration. (“Oh! Well, I just … it was amazing! Yeah, I mean, it was really, um, incredible!”)

He will marvel at her declaration, saying it is the second thing they share in common, an allusion that will only leave her more flustered. (“What else do we have in common?”) Adding yet another layer to her embarrassment, she will scramble to gather the books that have sprawled across the floor, seemingly of their own accord, unaware that her poise – or lack of it – really doesn’t matter. Ray would like to meet her at the mall on Saturday, under the gazebo. And, if that weren’t enough, he’s already written her a poem. One that she will never get a chance to read while still alive. Instead, it will fall into the hands of another.

If I had but an hour of love
If that be all that’s given me
An hour of love upon this earth
I would give my love to thee
– The Moor

Their young love, while doomed, was already a done deal, even though only a handful of words had passed between them. However, their first encounter – eased by a certain kind of self-effacement – would consolidate the emotions she had already elicited in him, just as the lashes to his eyes had already tugged at something in her heart.

What more could a girl ask?
Or want?

And yet, it is precisely as she’s walking home from this heavenly moment when her murderer appears, apparently out of the blue, and lures Susie to his dungeon of despair.

Past Perfect

There’s one thing my murderer didn’t understand.
He didn’t understand how much a father could love his child.

Ages ago, after Susie had rescued her brother from his premature appointment with death, her grandmother would pull her aside to predict that she would live a long and happy life since she had saved the life of another. According to Buddhists, at least. Given the events that were to follow, our narrator will dismiss the older woman’s prognostication. (“As usual, Grandma Lynn was wrong.”) But in light of the afterlife that now begins to unfold, we might wish to revisit the question and ask ourselves, was she really?

After her murder, Susie will find herself in a strange and beautiful world – “the blue horizon between heaven and earth” – one from which she see into the past, or at least those who peopled her previous existence. Upon her arrival, she will remember that she was supposed to be somewhere. The gazebo at the mall. Exactly like the replica in which she now finds herself. From this otherworldly perch, she will turn around and see Ray waiting for her or, more precisely, mourning her death. With closed eyes, she will gaze upon his forlorn figure and, unable to tolerate the distance that separates them, run out to meet him, calling out his name. But the field upon which she runs will turn into marshy waters that slowly begin to swallow her, as if intent on becoming her watery grave. It would appear that this waterlogged land was unconcerned with, perhaps even opposed to, her desire to reunite with the one she loves.

Susie’s reverie will be interrupted by a girl who calls herself Holly Golightly. She will explain the place in which they find themselves, as well as what they’re supposed to do. A guide of some sort, apparently.

This isn’t heaven. We’re not there, yet.
– What is this place?
This place isn’t really one place. And also, it’s not the other place.
– It’s a bit of both!

Susie will ask about the tree she sees in the distance – one suspects it’s nothing short of the Tree of Paradise – and Holly will tell her that it is their destination, the place to which they must travel.

Holly said that there was a wide, wide heaven beyond everything we knew.
Where there was no cornfield. No memory. No grave.
But I wasn’t looking beyond yet. …

Despite Holly’s urgings – “You need to let go of earth. You’re dead, Susie. You have to leave.” – Susie cannot. Instead, she turns to head back toward the only home she has ever known. The mere promise of some “heavenly” hereafter is insufficient to override the other force pulling at her, compelling her in the opposite direction. It’s a power she can’t quite understand, but its tug leaves little choice but to follow and obey.

As she pivots to see what has been left behind, she will see her grief-stricken father, unconsoled and unconsolable over the loss of his daughter. Denied an identifiable outlet for his rage, he will turn to his only treasures – the ships-of-perfection that line his den – and dash them to the floor. So great is his anger that it will ripple into Susie’s world, swelling in its passage to the in-between, wreaking havoc on her ocean and threatening to overrun all who might cross its stormy path. Susie’s mother huddle in the adjoining room, covering their son’s ears, desperately hoping to protect the child against this frightening side of her husband’s grief, enraged by an absence that refuses to leave.

When spent by his fury, Susie’s father will find another – less violent – way to give focus to the fire that burns within. A candle will be lit, both a sign and a promise to his daughter that he will never forget. And as he creates an altar to his beloved, perched atop one of his bottled shrines to perfection, the flame’s twin will shiver, as if caught in a breeze, and he will think he might be blessed with evidence of the hereafter. Might this be a sign? And Susie, looking from the other side of death, will cry out: Yes! Ecstatic, she turns to Holly:

It’s okay. It’s gonna be okay!
He knows I’m here.
My dad knows I’m here!

As our narrator, she explains the source of her joy: I was still with him.

With this recognition, and in the company of her newfound playmate, Susie is finally able to delight in the “paradise” in which she finds herself. This world between earth and sky will be their oyster, skipping through fields and valleys, and indulging in the games of make-believe that children love to play. So, even though her family on the other side of the divide still grapples with the senselessness of the life that was wrenched from them, Susie will feel lighter than air. For a tremendous weight has been lifted.

The connection she thought had been forever lost was still there!

Paradise Lost

“Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.”

– Dante, The Divine Comedy (Inferno)

As might have been expected, this euphoria was fated to be short-lived. Despite the levity brought about by this “reconnection” with her father, there was more that remained unfinished from her previous life, another set of forces pulling at her, insisting that they be heard. And they appeared to her under the shroud of darkness.

The days were unchanging.
And every night, I dreamed the same dream.
The smell of damp earth.
The scream that no one heard.
The sound of my heart beating, like a hammer against cloth.
And I would hear them calling.
The voices of the dead.

For some of us, like Susie, such a time comes earlier rather than later, forced by circumstance to grapple with what has been stolen and lost, when the path of the “right road” disappears, and one can no longer ignore what persists in knocking at night’s door. The soaring heights to which Susie is able to fly is both the gift – and curse – of one so afflicted, indicating the depths to which she must travel and a measure of what it is with which she must contend. It is not what she wanted, and it most certainly is not what she asked for, since such a task weighs heavily on shoulders so young. In fact, it could be said that it was her murderer’s inability to make this journey his own that young Susie now finds herself forced to traverse the limits of death. And yet, for each of us, such an imperative will come, sooner or later. For Susie, it’s an awful inheritance but, as Holly has already promised, one that will lead to a different kind of paradise.

The “light” beckoning her to leave the safety of her gazebo is not what one would have expected. It emerges from a lighthouse and fills the night sky. As she moves in closer to get a better look, she will discover that it is perched atop a house that is eerily familiar. It is, in fact, the same house that belonged to her murderer and, upon coming to this realization, she will know what is required of her. “I would always come back to the same door, and I was afraid. I knew if I went in there, I would never come out.” The light of her dreams demands a certain kind of extinction.

It’s not only Susie who finds herself struggling with death’s transformation. Her parents also find themselves in this awful land. When Susie’s father’s is forced to recognize his wife’s misery, he will summon Susie’s grandmother to lend a hand. Susie’s mother will complain – (“What’s my mother doing here?”) – since there’s no love lost between the pair; the elder is more than a little self-possessed, not the best of qualities for one who would call herself a mother. And yet, when it comes to the family’s loss, the grandmother will take her daughter to task for how she is (not) dealing with Susie’s fate.

You have to find a way to live with this …
You don’t let anybody touch her things.
You have a tomb in the middle of your house!
Oh, sweetheart.
Do you really think if you seal it up
the pain’s going to go away?

And so, one day, she leaves, and her husband will find a Dear John letter waiting by the couch upon which he now sleeps, also caught in death’s embrace. She will go far away, to an orchard outside Santa Rosa. (“The work was hard, but she didn’t mind.”) As she struggles valiantly to come to terms with Susie’s passing, her husband will remain bound to the dead one, unwilling and unable to let her go, partly because this is what Susie requires of him. So, he will persist in making sense of what seems intent on exceeding his understanding. (“My father had the pieces, but he couldn’t make them fit.”)

So, despite the advice he receives from others, he will continue to feed his obsession and – amazingly – the pieces will slowly begin to fall into place. His wife’s absence will have left a vacuum, and there would be little else that could claim his attention. Shrunken by grief, the quest to identify Susie’s murderer would become a full-time occupation, turning over each piece of information already in his possession. Gradually, through this kind of commitment, the truth of his daughter’s fate will begin to dawn on him, and the free-floating anger will have finally found a target.

It is, in fact, a suspicion that had already begun nagging at Susie’s sister. There was something about that man – and his house – that bothered her deeply, as if it were calling out to her too, despite his best efforts to remain hidden. In this way, the father’s obsession would become the (other) daughter’s inheritance. And for good reason too, for Susie’s fate could well become her own.

My murderer could live in one moment for a long time.
He could feed off a memory over and over again.
He was animal. Faceless. Infinite.
But then, he would feel it.
The emptiness returning.
And the need would rise in him, again.

Under the cover of night, Susie’s father will arm himself before heading to the murderer’s home. But, as if prescient of their fated meeting, the murderer will exit the house and lead him to the cornfield, the very place of Susie’s murder. And what begins as a hushed game of cat-and-mouse quickly turns into a full-throated demand for blood, hurtling through the field, screaming for the murderer to show himself, as if fueled by Susie’s growing recognition of her anger, pain, and humiliation.

Murder changes everything.
When I was alive, I never hated anyone.
But now, hate was all that I had.
I want him cold. I want him dead.
With no blood in his veins.
Look at me! Look at what he did to me!
What am I now?
The dead girl? The lost girl? The missing girl?
I’m nothing!!

Only after it’s too late will Susie realize that this channeling of her hatred could only end badly: “I realized what I had done. [So] I willed him to stop. I willed him to turn back.” But to no avail. In the confusion of darkness, Susie’s father will accost a girl, one that the murderer had been stalking – in fact, acting out the murderer’s illicit desire – and the boyfriend, coming to her defense, will beat him to the edge of death. Only then will Susie be able come to the other conclusion that had been patiently waiting for her. One that had long hovered on the edge of her consciousness, the truth of which harbored the erosion of the ideal of perfection, itself.

I knew then that he would never give me up.
He would never count me as one of the dead.
I was his daughter, and he was my Dad.
And he loved me as much as he could.
… I had to let him go.

And the gazebo, her only anchor amid the ever-changing panoramas of her in-between world, suddenly begins to crumble, as if magically turned into ash.

To the Lighthouse

Freed of this reliance upon another – or at least finally able to make it her own – Susie will follow the light that has been beckoning her from the beginning, ever since arriving at the in-between. As she finds the courage to obey its call, the door to the murderer’s house will open and she will step over its threshold, finally willing and able to explore what she had so desperately sought to avoid. For she has always known that its hidden secrets would lead to a second death. No turning back.

At first, it looks like any other suburban home. But the light will beckon her upstairs where, quite suddenly, the hallway will transform into a highway, the headlights of passing cars blinding her until she is able to scramble to safety. There, in a ditch by the road, she will find the first of many bodies that preceded her own: the murderer’s previous victims, strewn across the eastern United States, a morbid record of the passage of (his) time. Suddenly, Susie will find herself transported back to his suburban home. And as she continues exploring the different rooms, she will find herself jerked to times and places that mark the extinction of other lives, their tiny corpses giving evidence to the murderer’s preference for the blood of the young.

These are Susie’s sisters in death, fellow victims that form an unholy sisterhood providing a record a man’s lust for what he could only acquire through their annihilation. The final body Susie discovers is one that was unceremoniously dumped in a Connecticut swampland. Despite the discoloration and decay, Susie will recognize its decomposing face as belonging to the girl who calls herself Holly.

The final step of Susie’s journey takes her to the murderer’s basement. It is the place where he has kept her own corpse, locked in a vault tucked away in the darkest recess of this submerged prison. In the dark, she will “see” the murderer gazing at this homemade tomb, as if savoring the memory of that night, her tiny body struggling to save itself. It is an ugly form of worship for Susie to witness, particularly since it’s premised on her very absence and elimination. Now, watching him watching over her rotting remains, she comes face-to-face with the split that his evil deed has bequeathed her and with which she has been condemned to live: an after-life without body or soul.

While Susie explores the dark underbelly of the murderer’s home – peering into the perverted shadows of his dollhouse – Susie’s sister will have given into the impulse to investigate the shadowy figure lingering on the edge her consciousness. And like her beloved sister on the other side of the in-between, she will find the truth he had so carefully found a way to hide.

Almost immediately, Susie will find herself returned to the fields of gold with which her journey began. Quite magically, standing before her is the object and goal of her long trek, the Tree of Paradise. Amazingly, what had seemed beyond her grasp and which seemed to lay in the opposite direction from where she felt compelled to go is actually within her grasp. No longer does it glimmer teasingly on the edge of an ever-receding horizon. It’s as if her travels – and travails – have not only led her back to the beginning, but have finally brought her home.

She will find one of her “sisters,” one of the murderer’s youngest victims, sitting beneath the tree. Yet, despite the fate dealt by his hand, here she is, the first of Susie’s kin to arrive at this wondrous place. She likes to come here everyday, she says. Likes listening to the sounds. Concerning Susie’s arrival, she will merely say: “You must be ready.”

Soon, the other members of this sisterhood begin to emerge from the mists of time. It is a strange, yet exalted, reunion of kindred spirits brought together by the suffering inflicted at the hands of another. While effectively strangers to one another, it’s as if they were destined for this moment, absent the icy fingers of hell through which they’ve had to navigate in haunted isolation. Susie will gasp, catching her breath at the beauty that surrounds her. Holly will reply, in gentle celebration: “Of course it’s beautiful. It’s Heaven!”

And yet, even as the others begin making their way to the hereafter that awaits them, Susie will hesitate one last time. For there’s one more piece of unfinished business calling out to her.

The (Hidden) Story within the Story

Out of the One comes Two,
out of Two comes Three,
and from the Third comes the One as the Fourth.

– Axiom of Maria Prophetissa

That last piece of business concerns Ray Singh. Or, more precisely, Ray Singh through Ruth Connor. She is the older girl that has shadowed Susie throughout The Lovely Bones. From beginning to end, in fact. Almost as if she were Susie’s “double” in some way. We first met her when Susie recalled going to the huge pit at the edge of town, a visit that clearly made an impression in more ways than one:

It’s strange the memories you keep.
I remember going with Dad to the sinkhole out at the Connors’ farm.
There was something about the way the earth could swallow things whole.
And I remember the girl who lived there, Ruth Connors.
The kids at our school said that she was weird,
but now I know she saw things that others didn’t.

In fact, it is Ruth Connors who first sees Susie on the heels of her murder, as she rushes past in a panic about the thing that has just happened. Briefly, but just for a moment, their hands touch and their eyes lock in mutual recognition, even as Ray’s love poem blows up to her feet below, as if brought to her for safekeeping until a time when Susie no longer frantically struggles against the imperatives of death. However brief their meeting, something passes between them, a secret knowledge about what has happened, perhaps. So, while Susie runs in desperation, the seer of ghosts will remain in her wake, stunned by the vision of unadulterated fear being yanked away from her.

This dark girl will be present during each of Susie’s encounters with Ray, both in this world as well as the next. She will not always appear central to the story being told. Nevertheless, she will be palpably present, both witness and participant in the proceedings. In fact, it was she who interrupted Susie’s stammerings by her locker so long ago, storming into the hallway just as Susie and Ray were leaning in for their first kiss. As if protesting what was about to be consummated, the “weird” girl burst onto the scene. Her anger, played out with her art teacher, will revolve around the kind of obliterations of the female body with which she refuses to comply.

Teacher: This is obscene! Are you listening to me? There are no breasts on this anatomy model!
Ruth: There are no eyes or mouth, either, but we were told to draw in a face.
Teacher: Your unnecessary anatomical additions got the Ellis boy thoroughly overexcited.
Ruth: He stole my drawing!
Teacher: Yes, and now there are pictures of naked women all over the school!

Perhaps this is why she’s such a marginal figure and why the kids at school think she’s weird. For she’s unwilling to tolerate, much less condone, the kind of censorship that would erase a woman, much less the rituals of courtship that so often end up doing the same. Perhaps, too, it is a complaint against Ray’s lofty proclamations of love, seemingly disconnected from the ground below. Perhaps this also explains her ability to recognize ghosts, haunted presences doomed to remain invisible to those oblivious to, or unconcerned about, their existence. And perhaps this was the “other thing” to which Ray referred that day – what they had in common – but which Susie was unable to recognize or understand. In either case, according to Susie, Ruth Connor was “that strange otherworldly girl who so easily accepted the presence of the dead among the living.”

Later, she will befriend Ray – or, rather, they will befriend each other – and their first conversation will be about death. Ray will be overwhelmed by Susie’s absence while the dark girl will focus on (hidden) presence, confessing a newfound understanding of death, as if it had only recently acquired a deeper significance. Somehow, it would seem that learning about Susie’s fate has given death a deeply personal meaning it never had until now.

Ruth: I never knew what death meant. I used to think it meant “lost” [or] “frozen.”
Ray: It means gone. She’s gone.
Ruth: What if she isn’t? What if she’s still here?

By the end of our story, even as the murderer desperately seeks to dispose of the evidence of his crime, including the vault within which Susie’s body has been imprisoned, we will hear echoes of Susie in Ruth’s complaints about the man hauling a safe down to the garbage pit. It would appear that this third figure – Susie’s murderer – is laying the ground for bringing them together once again. Ruth will tell Ray that there’s something about him that gives her the skeevies. (“Why! What, are you twelve?”) Rushing to the safety of the shack on the edge of her family’s property, she will watch him through the window facing the sinkhole below. However, once there, she will see Susie’s face, no longer contorted by the shocked pain of having one’s life ripped from one’s body. The “reflection” will approach Ruth, pass through the glassy panes that separate them, and – quite miraculously – fuse with her own body. When light merges with dark, when what had been rent asunder reunites with its other, Ruth will be overcome. Teetering on the edge of consciousness, she will call out for Ray.

When she revives, her hand will be drawn to his face while her own takes on the guise of Susie’s. She will, in fact, become Susie and, in a voice he thought he would never hear again, she will remind him of the moment they shared in the distant past. – “You wrote me a poem once. You called yourself the Moor.” – The death that came to separate them will have finally been overcome, in no small part due to a willingness to brave the fractured elements that hound the hereafter.

Finally, she will be ready for that long-deferred kiss.

The Lovely Bones

My name is Salmon, like the fish.
First name: Susie.

Names are funny things, and not merely because hers is like the fish. For they confer an identity upon their holders, identities that come to stand for what we so often take ourselves to be. It is not insignificant, then, that Susie claims “Salmon” as her name. Among other things, it suggests that she is her family – that they are her – in ways that exceed the emotional bonds of kinship. The different names they have for her (Susie, Suze, Susie-Q) reflect the different “identities” that constitute her relation to her family and which, in turn, are mirrored in herself. When distress forces us to come apart at the seams, these are the fragments that threaten to tear us apart.

By film’s end, it is these fragments that Susie celebrates, for they too have found a way to overcome death’s cold embrace, forming new constellations in Susie’s absence.

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.

Like Susie, her mother will have disappeared – absent, yet working furiously to sort through her grief and learning the awful lesson of coming to terms with loss – while the rest of her family struggled to find their own way through the hell that had so mercilessly been dealt them. In addition to following her intuitions about the murderer, Susie’s sister, the tomboy Lindsey, will have found her way into love, something she never would have thought possible. Her father, battered by the limits of paternal affection, will learn to refocus his attention for the other “girl” in his life.

Saying goodbye to one’s life and loves is no easy task, probably the most difficult thing in the world. But after the storm of protests have exhausted themselves, the fated moment will finally arrive. And it comes quietly, as if carried by a breeze so gentle it can only be identified as the breath of God.

Nobody notices when we leave.
I mean, the moment when we really choose to go.
At best, you might feel a whisper,
or a wave of a whisper,
undulating down.

And with this insight about her imminent departure, Susie will wish her “family” – her lovely bones – a long and happy life.

Perhaps her grandmother wasn’t that crazy, after all.

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~ by mistified on January 28, 2010.

5 Responses to “The Lovely Bones”

  1. Lovely review

  2. I really love your review.. keep it up!

  3. Wonderful Review!

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