Her voice hits you like a bracing blast of girl air: precocious, impatient, plucky, and utterly adolescent. Susie used to snap covert photos of her family while practicing to be a wildlife photographer and made ships in a bottle so she could hang out with her dad. She skipped class only once and almost kissed a boy named Ray. Susie dreamed of growing up and going to high school but never did. The Lovely Bones is the tale of her murder and its aftermath, a luminescent debut novel that does something rare in the world of fiction—it conjures a fully realized imaginative universe that is both tangible and ethereal, creating a sublime friction between reality and ghostliness, the now and the nevermore.
This isn’t a mystery story, since we know by page two that the killer is Mr. Harvey, a neighborhood eccentric who builds an underground cave to entrap Susie. She narrates the book from heaven, recalling her rape and murder with language and imagery that seem age appropriate: “I felt the corners of my body were turning in on themselves and out, like in cat’s cradle, which I played with Lindsey just to make her happy.”
For Sebold (whose previous book, Lucky, was a memoir about being raped as a college freshman), this murder is just the beginning of the story. Looking down from her perch in the clouds, Susie’s perspective is both omniscient and off-kilter as she depicts Mr. Harvey lugging around a sack of her bones, sitting in his basement carving Gothic dollhouses, and making small talk with her parents. She also watches her family ricochet between denial and horror—the parents growing distant from each other, and the siblings’ carefree childhoods turning solemn. Sebold lays out family dynamics with delicate precision, illustrating the emotional costs of rebuilding and the impossibility of replicating the old structure.
At first Susie takes a selfish glee in seeing how much people miss her, but that excitement turns to frustration when she realizes that she can’t console them. In the days after her disappearance, as her mother makes lists of what she was wearing, what objects she might have carried, Susie says, “I had wavered between the bittersweet joy of seeing my mother name all the things I carried and loved and her futile hope that these things mattered.” As an escape from her family’s misery, Susie spends a lot of her time mooning over her lost opportunity for romance by obsessively revisiting her one close encounter with Ray:
On my feet I had a pair of fake sheepskin boots with dirty synthetic shearing spilling out like animal innards around the tops and seams. If I had known this was to be the sex scene of my life, I might have prepared a bit, reapplied my Strawberry-Banana Kissing Potion as I came in the door.
Susie’s version of heaven resembles the local high school she’d looked forward to attending, with a few differences: “We had been given, in our heavens, our simplest dreams. There were no teachers in the school. 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.” The idea of a place in the clouds where spirits watch over us has always seemed twee (not to mention overly optimistic), and the book does fall prey to a few celestial clichés. But this heaven has such a strong vibe, it feels as real as a mall or a classroom. Susie decorates her sky pad with literal wishful thinking (if she wants something, it appears) and sits in a gazebo spying on her old earth friends as if watching a personalized soap opera all day, using their activities and environments as raw material for her ghost world.
The Lovely Bones encompasses so many milieus so effortlessly—from the lonely lawns of heaven to the miniature humiliations of high school to the internal purgatory of a serial killer. The novel’s structure is extremely intricate, weaving sickening horror between the manicured hedges of 1970s suburbia, yet it feels as organic as a blush spreading across one’s face. Sebold maps pinpricks of emotion that radiate over the town’s surface as people’s memories of the dead girl or fears for their own children’s safety flare up and then fade. One of the most affected is Ruth, a brainy classmate who, moments after the murder, is physically touched by Susie’s soul as it leaves earth. Ruth spends the rest of her young life intercepting transmissions from slain women, testing the barrier between life and death, which turns out to be surprisingly porous. Susie finds she can occasionally make her presence felt, even haunting her killer’s bloodstained dreams and memories as she attempts to understand him.
Sebold throws in some comic relief by making the morbidly obsessed Ruth a celebrity among Susie’s neighbors in heaven, teasing that Ruth “would have been disappointed to know that often these fans, when they gathered, resembled more a bunch of teenagers poring over an issue of TeenBeat than Ruth’s image of low dirgelike whisperings set to a celestial timpani.”
It’s goofy humor, but then the author never lets us forget that Susie is a teenager. Initially she resents any affection her father shows to her grieving siblings and envies her sister Lindsey’s first love. As much as Lindsey’s life was destroyed by the murder, she can mutate and re-create herself as an adult in a Susie-less world. Over the course of the novel, Susie realizes that the architecture of her family has been irrevocably demolished by her death, but the living always find a way to build something new out of the wreckage.
These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections—sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent—that happened after I was gone.
They’ve let go of her, and she emotionally matures enough to get on with her unlife.
Sebold’s debut is a remarkably effervescent book in which we witness a young woman come of age, even though she will never grow up.
Read the first chapter of The Lovely Bones.