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Onyx reviews: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

To say that The Lovely Bones is a story narrated by a ghost or an angel looking down from heaven is to cast Alice Sebold's first novel in a light entirely different from its reality. Susie Salmon's heaven is not the lofty, cloudy and idyllic location populated by harp-playing nymphs the word implies. Instead, it resembles the ideal surroundings a teenager with limited experience might conceive—a school playground with friendly counselors, amiable companions and teen magazines for textbooks.

Susie's existence is essentially of her own creation. Things come and go in response to her desires. It is an interim heaven, perhaps a purgatory in the most literal sense of that word, a place where she must adapt to her death in much the same way those she left behind must grapple with her absence. The only wish left unfulfilled is her desire to be reunited with her family.

Susie was raped and murdered at the age of fourteen by Mr. Harvey, her neighbor. He lured her into his underground lair one wintry day on her way home from school. She tells the story of her last moments—a terrible and unthinkable horror—in gentle terms, giving it an almost artistic aspect without minimizing its brutality. Her body is never found. Susie reveals who killed her early in the book, but she is mostly helpless to interact with those who wonder what befell her.

Life back on earth is much altered. Her father, with the assistance of the detective on the case, works tirelessly for years to find Susie and bring justice to her existence. In some ways, life goes on for Susie, too, as she lives vicariously through her siblings and monitors almost every stage of her family's long grief. She cannot relinquish the tenuous ties that remain to her past life and move on to whatever comes next.

Without her—or because of the circumstances of her death—her family disintegrates. Her father latches onto a likely suspect—and is, in fact, correct in his suspicions—but can find no proof. He's regarded as a mildly deranged fanatic, misguided and potentially dangerous. Her mother withdraws into alcohol and an affair. She eventually abandons her family and a home that no longer brings her comfort or joy.

From her vantage point, Susie sees everything. She experiences many things over a ten year period she never did while alive and nostalgically reminisces over the limited experiences she did have, like her first and only kiss. Her observations are not restricted to just her family members—she watches the spreading tentacles of her death within the small community. Under her watchful eye, those left behind individually grow away from her murder, each shaped by it in their own way.

Sebold's previous book, Lucky, was a memoir describing her own rape and the subsequent trial of her attacker. In The Lovely Bones, she has turned an unthinkable and brutal event into an inspirational story. Her writing style is lyrical and at times poetic, resonating that unflinching optimism which is the province of early-teenage girls.

Though the story beings to lose some of its emotional stream toward the end, the novel is a perceptive and poignant exploration of how people cope—or fail to cope—with tragedy and how life is an unstoppable locomotive that carries its passengers on to the future, even in spite of themselves.

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