Alice Sebold, who authored the memoir “Lucky,“ has crafted a remarkable and haunting debut novel in “The Lovely Bones,“ an artistic high-wire act that succeeds triumphantly, in spite of the considerable risks it takes.
This is a coming-of-age tale, but with none of the trademarks one might anticipate. For starters, it is about the murder of a 14-year-old girl named Susie, and as we meet her, her death and transition into heaven have already taken place. From above, in a place where “life is a perpetual yesterday,“ Susie narrates the story of her life and demise, and keeps watch over her grieving family friends, as well as the ruthless serial killer and the world weary detective trying to solve the case.
As this unforgettable story opens, Sebold introduces us to her young heroine, whose voice rings as clear as the details in her story have the power to chill:
“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. In newspaper photos of missing girls from the seventies, most looked like me: white girls with mousy brown hair. This was before kids of all races and genders started appearing on milk cartons or in the daily mail. It was still back when people believed things like that didn‘t happen... I wasn‘t killed by Mr. Botte, by the way. Don‘t think every person you‘re going to meet in here is suspect. That‘s the problem. You never know. Mr. Botte came to my memorial (as, may I add, did almost the entire junior high school I was never so popular) and cried quite a bit. He had a sick kid. We all knew this, so when he laughed at his own jokes, which were rusty way before I had him, we laughed too, forcing it sometimes just to make him happy. His daughter died a year and a half after I did. She had leukemia, but I never saw her in my heaven.
My murderer was a man from our neighborhood. My mother liked his border flowers, and my father talked to him once about fertilizer. My murderer believed in old-fashioned things like eggshells and coffee grounds, which he said his own mother had used. My father came home smiling, making jokes about how the man‘s garden might be beautiful but it would stink to high heaven once a heat wave hit.
But on December 6, 1973, it was snowing, and I took a shortcut through the cornfield back from the junior high. It was dark out because the days were shorter in winter, and I remember how the broken cornstalks made my walk more difficult. The snow was falling lightly, like a flurry of small hands, and I was breathing through my nose until it was running so much that I had to open my mouth. Six feet from where Mr. Harvey stood, I stuck my tongue out to taste a snowflake.
“Don‘t let me startle you,“ Mr. Harvey said.
Of course, in a cornfield, in the dark, I was startled. After I was dead I thought about how there had been the light scent of cologne in the air but that I had not been paying attention, or thought it was coming from one of the houses up ahead.
“Mr. Harvey,“ I said.
“You‘re the older Salmon girl, right?“
“How are your folks?“
Although the eldest in my family and good at acing a science quiz, I had never felt comfortable with adults.
“Fine,“ I said. I was cold, but the natural authority of his age, and the added fact that he was a neighbor and had talked to my father about fertilizer, rooted me to the spot.
“I‘ve built something back here,“ he said. “Would you like to see?“
“I‘m sort of cold, Mr. Harvey,“ I said, “and my mom likes me home before dark.“
“It‘s after dark, Susie,“ he said.“
From that point on, “The Lovely Bones“ is a gripping page-turner, especially when it comes to observing Susies family cope with her loss. Whether Susie is watching her younger brother build a tree fort in her memory, seeing her father launch his own search for the killer and a mother emotionally withdraw, or a sister take an amazing risk that she never would have dared to prior to all of this, the action has the momentum of a river current that cant be slowed.
Perhaps most compelling of all is Susies own perceptions on her new surroundings (her idealized heaven, she says, is a place where “there were no teachers.... We never had to go inside except for art class.... The boys did not pinch our backsides or tell us we smelled; our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue.“), and on the reflections of her growing up through every wonderful, exasperating, challenging phase. Susie struggles to accept her death and leave the world of the living and those she loved behind, and the poignancy played out in the little missed opportunities we have to make a difference every day (but are often too busy to do so) are magnified from the pages of this book.
Faith, forgiveness, and family all converge for a satisfying resolution, one that is far more strong than sentimental. “The Lovely Bones“ is a minor miracle, its darkness balanced by the light of hope and redemption. Our is a world of strange and terrible beauties, much of it shaped by the lives and the choice we play out each day. As this graceful, enigmatic story confirms, the gift of life is play in many ways, with no dress rehearsals, and perhaps one final chance to assess the quality of our performance.