The Lovely Bones is a tale told from beyond what doesn't even qualify as a grave. At the outset, we learn where and how 14-year-old Susie was murdered (brutally), by whom and with what devastating effect on her loved ones. We watch her parents, family and friends grieve. And we watch as Susie, perched in her idiosyncratic heaven, watches them.
For Susie's heaven grows and matures just as she does: At first just a junior high school, where, she says, "our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue," later a forest with paths that lead to encounters with the living.
Given such a plot, there's potential for maudlin TV-movie excess. Yet Sebold repeatedly, wisely, practices the art of what might be called coincidences manqu & eacute;. She gently deflects on-the-nose plot resolutions: the evidence almost discovered, the evildoer almost caught, the profoundest emotions nearly, not quite, professed. After heightening suspense, she resolves it with wisdom. Evil, full of banality, can almost be comprehended; reunions aren't so much blissful as gradual, labored.
The Lovely Bones is not a perfect novel: Two of Susie's friends and one of her mother's seem under-written, at least before the conclusion. But Sebold's gift is to make us feel -- at our fingertips, at the backs of our necks -- that our joys are born of sadness. She transmogrifies the bones of Susie's dismembered body into something rich and strange. (Redemptive, too.) The joys and turmoil of our loved ones, Sebold persuades us, even as their bones lie in disquiet, were necessary precursors to the shards of happiness granted us in the present.
Loss and sadness are not absent from Susie's heaven, but her station teaches how to surpass grief: "I began to see things," she realizes, "in a way that let me hold the world without me in it." If we love by letting go, so apparently must souls stranded in paradise.
One of Susie's visionary friends "wanted everyone to believe what she knew: that the dead truly talk to us, that in the air between the living, spirits bob and weave and laugh with us. They are the oxygen we breathe."
In similar fashion, Sebold's novel itself sustains and inspires. As with the works of Catholic theologian Teilhard de Chardin, her novel convinces us -- not just intellectually -- that we aren't simply physical creatures who sometimes glimpse the spiritual dimension. We are, instead, spiritual creatures living a physical existence. A temporary one.