I remember reading Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones and thinking it was a spectacular book, but that the writer must have something very dark inside her to write it. It wasn’t a judgment, but an exploratory and rather sad thought on my part.
When I read Sebold’s memoir, I learned where that darkness originated. Lucky is the story of the tragedy that happened to her: she was raped while a freshman at college. After the rape, a police officer told Sebold about another girl who had been killed after her rape, and that Sebold was lucky. Imagine how that word lucky must have sounded to her!
The book starts right off with the rape. This hooks the reader . . . swiftly and absolutely. The rest of the book describes how this experience affected her life, as well as how the rapist was eventually captured and tried. The book has all the “high drama” elements: inadequate responses of family and friends, the emotional terrain, and the legal process.
It’s hard to isolate what I learned from this book, but I’ll go with how it put me in Sebold’s life so that I felt as I were experiencing all that she had experienced. She wasn’t lucky at all, but she was very plucky, both her immediate response to the rape and the aftermath were plucky.
I also learned something about book structure. As a nonfiction writer, I see that it can be very powerful to begin a book with the most intense scene. In this case, everything else that happens in the book is because the protagonist was raped, so it all springs from that initial event. It seems as if the book can only be structured this way, but in lesser hands, I can imagine that the writer might think that putting the rape scene first would be:
- “too much” (grandstanding)
- wasting the best scene at the beginning (how can the rest of the book hold up after the bar is set that high?)
- not really the beginning (after all, the fact that Sebold was still a virgin–and why–adds to the story, right?)
These are all useless worries. The rape belongs at the beginning, and because it is at the beginning, it lurks underneath every scene after it. That makes the whole book that much more powerful!