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Classic review: The Lovely Bones

In Alice Sebold's debut novel, the dead must learn to let go, too

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Her classmates react across a full spectrum, from macabre comedy to obsessive sympathy. Most walk through the usual itinerary of community grief – assembly, funeral, anniversary memorial. But a couple of them find that emotional journey inadequate and follow Susie's disappearance to a deeper sense of themselves and their responsibility in the world.

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Susie also watches the bland neighbor who murdered her. She sees him offer condolences. She sees him check on the carving knife in his bedroom. She sees him sweat. These are catch-your-breath scenes that teeter between the possibility of justice or another murder. But the author is so careful here. Susie's vision of his abusive childhood doesn't absolve or even, ultimately, explain the crimes he commits.

She wishes he were dead, but there's no passion in that wish, only a sharp concern for the safety of her sister as she closes in on the truth. By the end, the retribution he receives is perfectly calibrated – ignominious and anonymous.

Susie watches her family for years, long enough, in fact, to note that "it was no longer a Susie-fest on Earth." They eventually reach that once-impossible-to-imagine future with moments, hours, and then somehow whole days of happiness.

But this is as much a story about the dead as about the living. On her side, Susie must realize that she has progress to make, too, but first she insists on returning for one rite of passage that was denied her. Indeed, if the novel stumbles, it's on a weird scene of sexual fulfillment that runs embarrassingly close to Patrick Swayze's finale in "Ghost."

Some readers – and certainly most reviewers – are likely to treat the religious elements of the plot merely as literary devices, sweet bits of comfort or wit in a novel about family survival and emotional recovery. But that may be like thinking of John Edward's "Crossing Over" as just a talk show.

It's significant that this wildly successful novel comes with a heavy serving of spiritualism – messages from the dead, ghostly visitations, and bodily possessions. None of the characters finds solace in anything as dusty as prayer or a sacred text. And as pleasant as Susie's heaven is, there's no God there, and certainly no Jesus. This is spirituality for an age that's ecumenical to a fault.

But emotionally, it's faultless. Sebold never slips as she follows this family. The risks she walks are enough to give you vertigo. A victim of rape herself when she was in college, she includes some deadly satire of the shallow advice people offer in the face of great loss. There is no "moving on," and time alone won't bring relief either. That only comes through the hard work of learning to care for the living while cradling the memory of this loved one. As her father eventually realizes, "You live in the face of it."

Ron Charles is a former Monitor book editor.

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