I'm done with my fourth set of finals in college. To celebrate the freedom felt in every new semester break, I of course have to go back to the thing I (arguably) love doing the most: getting lost in the world of a fictitious character.
Without much deliberation, the first book I have taken out of the shelves a couple days ago is The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, and reading it is like a great serendipitous start to my break. I know this story has been adapted into a movie, but I do not intend to watch the movie because movie adaptations have a way of stripping away the very accents of a novel that make it so memorable (bad experience with P.S. I Love You and Marley & Me -- not that the movies were bad; they just lack the emotional attachment I felt when reading the same titles). I don't know how the movie is, but the novel is great.
It is about a fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon who gets brutally killed by a man in her neighborhood in the winter of 1973. She goes to heaven, and from up there, she watches as her living family and friends cope with the grief of the loss and try to look for answers. They don't just look for answers about Susie's death, but answers to the questions they have to throw at life. And the living aren't the only ones looking for answers; Susie has questions too, and trapped in a perfect world -- heaven -- she tries to look for the answers on earth.
This story has its mysteries, and it does touch on the supernatural, but this story is really about the simplest things in life that in the end matter most. It's about the simple mind of a four-year-old brother who asks about his, unbeknownst to him, dead sister. A sister who has to endure the sympathetic glances of school staff and school kids' whispers behind her back. A young boy whose crush is Susie -- was Susie -- who has to experience losing his first love. A mother and a father, both devastated by the loss of their first child, and trying to cope with it in their own ways.
I like how in the beginning of the novel before the first chapter begins (prologue perhaps, but I'm not quite sure because 'prologue' isn't written at the top), the author gives us a glimpse of Susie's close relationship with her father as a young child. Father and daughter watch as he inverts a snow globe and snow fall gently over the penguin in it. She worries that the penguin is lonely in its little world, but he tells her not to worry because it has a nice life, trapped in a perfect world. To me, it's a foreshadow of how life can feel so trapped even when you are already in the 'perfect' place. And I think that's how Susie feels in her heaven after her death; trapped away from the people she loves the most whom she can now only watch from a distance.
It makes me wonder: is life in heaven really the perfect picture of an afterlife, when, you may have the people you love suffering on earth, or for eternity, in hell? Sure, when I'm in heaven, I'll will be forever dwelling in God's presence, and there will be joy, and no more pain. But I've never questioned this until now: on the day I go to heaven and find that someone I love is not up there with me, will heaven still be perfect? Absence will lead to longing, and when I start longing for someone who can no longer be with me, how can the perfect heaven still be perfect to me? To think that life will be joyful and perfect nevertheless, that must have taken at least a pinch of oblivion to make that happen.
That's the thoughts the character Susie has evoked in my mind. But surprisingly or not, I'm not too sure which, the characters I somehow feel I can relate to most are Susie's mother (Abigail) and Ruth, who's been in the same class with Susie since kindergarten but whom Susie has never been close to, or even really talked to until two weeks before her death. Susie's mother is a mysterious and independent woman, battling between having to play the role of a wife and a mother to perfection, and wanting to set herself free. To Susie, her mother has always been sort of distant -- a distance made more apparent by the loving closeness she shares with her father. Abigail is a free spirit trapped in a mother's body, lonely because no one has ever truly understood her.
Ruth is sort of a social outcast in the school, a very talented artist and also a poet. She's a loner, whose greatest friend is probably the journal she writes in. She intrigues me, because she's deemed weird by her peers, but I think she's cool because she does not fall into the pressure of conforming. Or maybe she has failed in her attempts to do so. Abigail and Ruth are two very different persons, similar only because they live a life of being alone, if not physically, then mentally and emotionally.
There's something just so deliciously appealing about loneliness, of not having to worry about others' emotions, of being able to dwell in my own world without being interrupted, of not sharing the same air with another person. It's easy to understand why Susie's mother finds a need to run away to a place surrounded by strangers. I guess one just gets tired of living behind a facade your friends recognize you for that feels so false after a while. It's easy too to see how Ruth can continue to live in the loneliness that defines her, because sometimes, that's easier than dealing with relationships. I feel a connection with them because there are many times when I wish I can just escape from people, because it gets tiring always trying to connect with them but never quite succeeding in sending across my message. If only I have Abigail's and Ruth's courage to stop trying.
I think The Lovely Bones is a beautifully narrated novel from the point of view of a dead girl just into her teens. She's torn; torn between wanting to let go and see her family move on with life without her, and not wanting to be forgotten. And this state of torn in emotions is something I'm sure many can relate to. This novel is going into my list of great reads.