'If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take'

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

Don't start "Lovely Bones" unless you can finish it. The book begins with more horror than you could imagine, but closes with more beauty than you could hope for.

Still, there are reasons not to open this runaway bestseller. In the first chapter, 14-year-old Susie Salmon describes how she was enticed into a little cave by a neighbor on a snowy day. He stuffs her hat into her mouth. They both hear her mother calling her for dinner. He rapes her, cuts her throat, and then dismembers the body. It's the most terrifying scene I've ever read.

For the next seven years, she describes how her family and friends – and even her murderer – cope with her absence. She's in heaven, so she can see everything from up there. It sounds mawkish, like a ghastly version of "Beloved" for white suburbia, but Alice Sebold has done something miraculous here.

It's no coincidence that the novel has been embraced during a period of high anxiety about child abductions – perhaps the only dread darker than our new fear of terrorism.

With her disarming wit and adolescent candor, Susie drags us behind those stories from Salt Lake City and Stanton, Calif., forcing us to consider the mechanics of rape and murder and grief in a way no news report ever could.

A few days after her death, Susie realizes that all the people she's with now are experiencing their own versions of heaven, reflecting their simplest dreams and aspirations from earth.

"There were no teachers in the school," she tells us about her paradise. "We never had to go inside except for art class for me and jazz for my roommate. Our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue. Our heaven had an ice cream shop where, when you asked for peppermint stick ice cream, no one ever said, 'It's seasonal'; it had a newspaper where our pictures appeared a lot and made us look important."

She also discovers that heaven isn't perfect. What she wants most is "to be allowed to grow up." But that's out.

And so she turns back to her friends and family on earth, ordinary people "who had never understood, as they did now, what the word horror meant." Here, she almost enjoys the voyeurism that allows her to learn what life could have been.

The power of "Lovely Bones" flows from this voice, a voice at once charmingly adolescent and tragically mature. She cares for her parents and siblings beyond measure, but the cosmic distance between them gives her a perspective that resolves the blur of sentimentality or vengeance even when the pain she's describing makes you wince.

Her father spends his days squirming under the weight of guilt for not being there to save his child. Her mother, who always felt cramped by maternal duties, finds the new burden of grief more than she can bear. And her sister moves through school trapped in the "Walking Dead Syndrome – when other people see the dead person and don't see you."

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.

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 the Monitor's book editor. E-mail charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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