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Alice Sebold: The Lovely Bones

Alice Sebold's debut novel, The Lovely Bones, confounds all expectations from the first chapter on. As a mystery novel, it subverts the genre by solving the crime as it's committed: The first-person protagonist, 14-year-old Susie Salmon, begins the book by describing her own rape and murder, speaking from the vantage point of a comforting heaven. As a thriller, Bones is surprisingly abstract and poetic: Susie's shudder-inducing mixture of frankness and euphemism in detailing the crime sidesteps the most exploitative aspects of the story, instead reaching for a tone that's gentle and almost sentimental, though still deeply unsettling. (In one of Sebold's most chilling conceits, Susie continues to identify closely, though dispassionately, with her dismembered corpse: "I knew the floor plan of Mr. Harvey's by heart. I had made a warm spot on the floor of the garage until I cooled.") As a ghost story, Bones is far from frightening: Susie haunts her family, watching her father growing obsessive and introverted, her mother defensively pulling away from the family, and her sister becoming rigid and defiantly private. She tries to influence them and others, hoping to point them in the direction of the murderer among them, but the distance of death is overwhelming, and she's mostly limited to observation and frustration. Bones plays with standard literary conventions: After her death, Susie sees the world with an all-encompassing vision that extends into mortals' minds and experiences, which lets Sebold forge an unusual blend of first-person narration and omniscient authorship. Through this perspective, Susie explores her murderer's past and present life, as well as the history of family members, friends, and outsiders whom her death touched. She weaves them all into a conjoined, cinematic tapestry, but maintains an intimate perspective. As an afterlife story, Bones is refreshingly practical. Sebold's heaven defies clichés with its expressionist mixture of concreteness and poetry: No God is mentioned, no religion is invoked, no hell is offered for contrast. Anything Susie wishes for is magically provided, and anything that would be pleasant is present, but she still has an "intake counselor" who serves as a social worker and guide, helping her come to terms with herself and the place's mild mercies. Finally, the author flouts expectations for a first-time novelist. Her debut is refreshingly experimental, and ambitious in the extreme. As the years pass—as Susie watches her family grow and change, and waits to see whether her murderer will be caught, and whether the wounds caused by her death will eventually heal—Sebold stretches her story far past the logical ending and into more cosmic territory, drawing on coincidence and confluence to reach a balance between comforting fantasy and grim reality. Beautifully written, consistently surprising, and utterly assured, The Lovely Bones makes re-creating half a dozen genres simultaneously look like an effortless afternoon's work.

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