Friday, 11 September 2009

The Thumb Measure

I was looking forward to reading The Lovely Bones, after finishing Sebold's other novel, The Almost Moon. I admit I was expecting it to be a stronger novel than Moon, if only because of its stellar success as on the bookshelves. For my money, Moon is the better novel. And I think it's about structure, about the place where my thumb rested in the book as I was reading. I haven't considered the significance of this Thumb Measure before, but I thought about it all the way through Bones. I was partly judging the success of the story on how comfortable my thumb felt while I was reading. The Thumb measure is about whether what's happening on the page feels right in terms of how far I am into the book. Will I read on? How soon is it due to end and is there enough story left to satisfy my expectations as as reader?

Moon is told in real time over a day and a half, punctuated with flashbacks. The Thumb Measure felt exactly right, all the way through. When I reached the mid section of the book I felt that I was halfway through the story. The problem I found with Bones was that it could have ended a third of the way through and I wouldn't have felt cheated. The ending was absolutely implicit in the first three chapters of the book. We knew what had happened to the heroine and we knew who did it. The fact that the heroine was in heaven seemed somehow conclusive to me. She was happy there, if unresolved in her feelings towards those on earth. But the ending - her ending - had been reached. The heroine's journey was done. I could not shake that idea no matter how much deeper I ventured into the story.

The Thumb Measure continued to feel out of whack as I read on. And to complicate matters Sebold deployed an ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card: the supernatural. This wasn't a genre novel, her deployment of the supernatural was pragmatic, but she reached for it a little too often for my liking, as a way of avoiding any more complex reasoning or plotting. Let me give a couple of examples. The heroine's father suddenly starts to suspect a neighbour of being his daughter's murderer. This conviction comes from nowhere and arrives ready-made, absolute and unshakeable from the second it hits him. Sebold seemed to be implying that the ghost of his daughter made a gift of the knowledge, but for me it didn't ring true, not quite. I felt as if I'd watched a magician's trick and knew I'd been 'had' but the sleight of hand was to be accepted on all sides.

The ultimate denouement depends on this belief in the supernatural. The heroine's final adventure was like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which robbed it of the quiet dignity I was anticipating from Sebold's lead-in to the moment. And now for the big finale..! The impetus behind it seemed to come from a different genre, one where Love Conquers All and teenage girls have dreamy moments of wonderful fulfilment. Yeuch. The vengeance against her murderer was similarly affected by reference to the supernatural. I cringed when I read it, because it seemed such a pat answer, a sop to the reader's need for a tidy ending. And yet there were moments when Sebold seemed determined not to give us that, when I was certain her message was Life is Messy; Live it. The contrived neat endings felt all wrong to me.

(And what of poor Ruth, the girl used like a glove and cast aside with barely a word as to how her life panned out, and Buckley with his Drumkit that Resolved all Problems? These loose ends bothered me even more given how tidily Sebold finished off other strands in the story.)

One thing I will say is that the cinematic impact of the story was immense. It was full of scenes which will film astoundingly well. And perhaps that was always in the back (or front) of Sebold's mind as she wrote. For me, these set pieces served to highlight the holes elsewhere, as if we were expected to be so dazzled by the spectacle of what was in front of us at any given moment we wouldn't stop to question how it fitted into the overall arc of the story. Onscreen there's no doubt it will work well. In my hand, with my Thumb Measure judging the progress and pace of the story, it fell short of my high expectations.


Madeline said...

Interesting, Sarah. When I think of Bones, I tend to think more about the emotions I felt, the characters, etc. Structure didn't even occur to me! But then that's probably why you're as good a writer as you are. :)

Unknown said...

I started The Lovely Bones a long time ago and never finished it, which might have been because of the clearly apparent ending or just because her vision of heaven irritated me. Reading your review I have little intention to dig it up and finish it!

Sarah Hilary said...

Madeline, it's lovely of you to say so but I think actually my annoying habit of reading this way - with an eye (and thumb) on structure and pace) - is a symptom of my awareness that I'm not that good, not yet, at this side of my craft. I was engaged with the emotional side of the reading also, but I did find Sebold selective in the paths she followed through the story, e.g. only showing us glimpses of poor Ruth whom I think deserved better by way of an arc. I loved the grandmother - one of the best character studies I've read in a long while.

Sarah Hilary said...

Belantana, I didn't mean to put you off finishing it. It's worth getting to the end of, but I'm a little relieved, I must admit, that I'm not the only one who was tempted to put it down early on.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Hi Sarah... I enjoyed Lovely Bones, but not the other... funny innit?
By the way, greetings from Ireland, and Anam Cara. Please could you email me if you have a second? I need to ask you a question - and I cant find your email address - think its on my other gmail account which I cant access when away.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi, V, yes dropping you a line now. Say hi to Sue from me.