"My name was Salmon, like the fish: first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." Go ahead, read it again. Almost everything that makes The Lovely Bones the breakout fiction debut of the year--the sweetness, the humor, the kicky rhythm, the deadpan suburban gothic--is right there, packed into those first two lines, under pressure and waiting to explode.
Part coming-of-age tale, part mystery, part ghost story, Alice Sebold's first novel (she's also the author of a memoir, Lucky) is the tale of an ordinary girl who is raped, murdered and dismembered in a field near her house. Three days later, a neighbor's dog comes trotting home with her elbow in its mouth. This is horror at its darkest and most tantalizing--a stiff cocktail of David Lynch and Judy Blume, served with a distinct chill--and as first chapters go, it's a knockout. The second chapter tops it.
What happens to little girls after they die? They go to heaven--and that's exactly what Susie does. In The Lovely Bones (an exquisite corpse of a title), heaven is a warm, grassy place reminiscent of the high school Susie never got to go to, complete with an "intake counselor" who makes sure she gets nicely settled. It's the paradise children pray for, full of soccer fields and friendly dogs. "Our heaven had an ice cream shop, where, when you asked for peppermint stick ice cream, no one ever said, 'It's seasonal.'"
But even ice cream gets boring after a while, so Susie turns her attention back to earth. She watches as the shock waves of her death spread slow-motion havoc among her family and friends--her brave but vulnerable dad, her precocious younger sister, her bewildered classmates, the boy she had a crush on. She watches dispassionately as her killer--the fastidious, emotionally damaged Mr. Harvey--carefully disperses her body parts (the hunt for Mr. Harvey gives the book a fierce narrative energy). She watches her mother's slow, grieving slide into adultery with a dry-eyed pity that's heartbreaking. "My mother had my body as it would never become," she says, as her mother undresses with a sympathetic detective. "But she had her own moonlit skin, her ocean eyes. She was hollow and lost and abandoned up."
Sebold knows what it is to be haunted. In 1981, as a freshman at Syracuse University, she was savagely beaten and raped by a stranger. The trauma left her with ghosts that needed exorcising, and it wasn't until 1996, after two earlier failed novels and half of a third, that inspiration finally arrived. She wrote the first 15 pages of The Lovely Bones in a single, unexpected rush that left her shaken. "It was one of those white-heat moments," Sebold remembers. But the struggle wasn't over. Two years into the novel she felt she had to take a break to write Lucky, a searingly unsentimental account of her rape. "I felt like I had a story of my own that was bearing down on me in such a way that it would infuse and therefore ruin Susie's story," says Sebold, who is 39 and lives near Los Angeles with her husband Glen David Gold, also a writer. "I wanted Susie's story to be a novel." It is: The Lovely Bones is free of any veiled autobiographical traces, and that's both a personal and an artistic triumph.