Review: 'Lovely Bones' has a lovely spirit
"The Lovely Bones"
(CNN) -- The narrator dies on the 15th page. She's a 14-year-old girl who is brutally murdered. Her death devastates her family and traumatizes her community. The killer is never caught.
From that description, "The Lovely Bones" doesn't sound like a particularly uplifting book. But it is, and that's a testament to the imagination and talent of first-time novelist Alice Sebold. She has taken the elements of tragedy and crafted a story about the triumph of the human spirit. And she does it in startling ways.
Take the narrator, for instance. Susie Salmon tells the story of her death and its aftermath from a vantage point in heaven. It's a very private sort of heaven, fashioned from idealized portions of Susie's life. Its focal point is the high school Susie never got to attend. From there, she can look back on the living, past and present.
Not only does she see how her parents, sister and brother are coping - or not - with her passing. She can return to precious moments from the all-too-brief time she spent among them.
Many of her memories center on her mother. "I was too little to know what she was really saying to me," Sebold writes, "but I loved to be hushed to sleep by the soft lullaby of her words. One of the blessings of my heaven is that I can go back to those moments, live them again, and be with my mother in a way I never could have been. I can reach my hand across the Inbetween and take the hand of that young lonely mother in mine."
Not everything Susie sees is pleasant. She watches her parents' marriage disintegrate, witnesses the painful adjustments her sister and brother make to her absence, and even spies on the neighbor who killed her. At every turn, the author unveils unexpected insights, couched in warm and quiet humor.
Sebold seldom takes the easy way out. Susie's story could easily devolve into melodrama. It never does. The protagonist remains a clear-eyed observer, while remaining very much a teenaged girl trying as hard to make peace with her afterlife as those she left behind are trying to make peace with life.
Difficult subject matter, expertly handled
"The Lovely Bones" has no right to be as absorbing and compelling as it is. The subject matter alone should be off-putting. Under Sebold's sure storytelling hand, the narrative gently guides the reader into Susie's world and doesn't let go until the last poignant and ironic words.
The novel is a triumph of literary technique. But it's much more. It's heart-warming and heart-rending, often at the same time.
Alice Sebold writes with authority and maturity, allowing the character of Susie to explore and expand and, in a sense, to grow up. "The Lovely Bones" is an astonishing debut for an author who has much to say and a fresh, vibrant way of saying it.
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