When you kill off your narrator in the first 10 pages of a novel and tell readers who the killer is you'd better have one compelling story up your sleeve. Alice Sebold does.
"I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973," Susie Salmon tells us in the second sentence of The Lovely Bones. She shows us who did it—a neighbor everyone thinks is weird—and describes the horrible scene, a brutal assault and dismemberment in an underground hideout in a bleak winter cornfield. Sebold's triumph is in making Susie's voice so immediately compelling that we don't want to let her go, even after she's dead. We want to know what happens next. So does Susie.
From up in what she calls "my heaven," Susie watches the repercussions of her death among her friends and family. She sees her broken parents crumble away from each other, her younger sister harden her heart, her classmates cling to each other for comfort. She watches her murderer in the calm aftermath of his awful deed. She longs for the one boy she's ever kissed, knowing she'll never touch him again. She misses her dog. She aches for her parents and siblings, yearning to comfort them but unable to interfere. In her heaven, she's granted all her simplest desires—she has friends and a mother-figure—and she delights in her ability to see everything and everyone in the world. Observing her sister one Christmas, she says, "Lindsey had a cute boy in the kitchen. . . I was suddenly privy to everything. She never would have told me any of this stuff. . . She kissed him; it was glorious. I was almost alive again."
But watching the world without being among the living isn't enough for Susie. She's 14 forever, and the pain of her unfulfilled promise infuses her voice as she watches her younger brother and sister growing into roles she'll never play. Still, Susie's no wispy, thinly drawn ghost; like nearly every other character in the book, she's a remarkable, complex person who has as much humor and kindness as grief.
In the end, what Sebold has accomplished is to find her own inventive way of expressing the universal alienation and powerlessness we all feel, trapped in our own small worlds apart from each other. More than that, she has convinced us that, through love and hope and generosity, these things can be overcome.
Becky Ohlsen is a writer in Portland, Oregon.
Read an interview with Alice Sebold.