"The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold (Little, Brown, 2002)
The Lovely Bones is the best book I've read in a long time. It sat on my shelf for several years, because I knew it would be difficult to read. And it was. In fact, I haven't read this vivid of a depiction of grief since Jacquelyn Mitchard's Deep End of the Ocean. I read that book in Mexico; I took this one to France. Maybe I need to leave the confines of home to read stories that are this hard, though they both were ultimately hopeful and redemptive.
The story is told from the persepective of 14-year-old Susie Salmon, whose brutal rape and murder we learn of in the first chapter. But that isn't as emotionally gut-wrenching as are the stories of the people she leaves behind, especially her parents and two siblings. The book follows them in the years after her death and portrays their grief in such haunting accuracy that anyone who's suffered that level of loss will be brought back to the immediacy of their own grieving.
In the Lucky Bones, Siebold (the author of the memoir Lucky, which also deals with rape) describes heaven, where Susie gets anything she desires, whether it's fashion magazines or dogs. The only thing she can't get is to go back to earth and join her family. And it's this longing that keeps her from the "higher level" of heaven. She watches helplessly as her family falls apart (as in Deep End, the parents' marriage breaks apart after the loss of a child).
In the end, it is Susie's inability to let go that keeps her locked in this "purgatory" of sorts. How she escapes that is rather unbelievable (the ending is pretty fantastic, even for fantasy), but it does provide a hopeful, redemptive resolution not only for Susie, but for her family and friends.
The title refers not to the never-found body of the murdered Susie but to the connections-- "sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent--that happened after I was gone. " These "lovely bones that had grown around my absence" forced Susie to "see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life."
In the end, as her family gathers to celebrate a new beginning, Susie wonders if this is what she had been waiting for: "for my family to come home, not to me anymore but to one another with me gone. "
Sebold writes beautifully about grief but even more beautifully about the new life that can come out of it. Her depection of heaven may not turn out to be accurate, but her description of grief, loss, and new life certainly are.