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'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

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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.

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