Lydia Millet’s superb literary thriller, Sweet Lamb of Heaven, has flown under the radar a bit. When it was published this May, it garnered all sorts of spectacular praise from big-name reviewers: The New York Times Book Review, the WaPo, The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, O Magazine, etc. I don't know how it did in sales, but I do know the correlation between being a bestseller and being a literary marvel is not what one might hope, at least according to my impeccable taste. It wasn’t on the NYT top 16 bestsellers list, anyway, and it should have been. The writing is really, really good.
Here’s the plot: Anchorage, Alaska resident Anna is married to Ned, a brash, callous jackass cloaked in a charismatic exterior, when she becomes pregnant. Over Ned’s objections, she has the baby—a little girl she calls Lena—when something startling occurs.
Anna begins to hear voices.
Cerebral and introspective, Anna recognizes that she is not insane. She investigates the source of the voices, painstakingly ruling out various physical and neurological disorders, eventually accepting that for whatever reason, she is experiencing auditory hallucinations. Bt the thing that surprises her the most about the voices—which vary from music to humming to fragments of speech in a myriad of languages—is that the sounds are inexplicably tied to her newborn daughter. When Lena is awake, Anna’s brain is bombarded with noise. When she sleeps, the voices cease. And then one day, it happens—Ned hears the voices too.
Pretty cool beginning, right? Immediately, I want to know more. Why didn't Ned want a baby? And how is the baby connected to Anna’s hallucinations? What is their significance? Is there a supernatural message encoded amongst all the gibberish?
And then, the plot thickens. (Well…at some point on this website, the phrase ‘the plot thickens,’ was inevitable, I’m afraid. Sorry!) Anna’s narration reveals that she and Lena, now 6, have fled Alaska and are dwelling in an off-the-grid motel in coastal Maine, where each of the other inhabitants shares a mysterious secret. Ned pursues them, not because he misses his wife and daughter, but because his fledging political career requires having a family. It makes him look bad that his particular family fled across the continental United States to escape him, and he’s pissed and vengeful about it. And what about the voices, you ask?
They’re gone. They stopped the moment Lena learned to speak.
I’ll let you read the rest. But I came away from this book impressed with the ability of the author to maintain the aura of mystery and tension embedded in her intelligent and beautiful prose. I’ll end with a lovely quote from Anna, as she muses about the nature of mortality:
What seemed as though it might partake of the awesome or sublime was away from these close-up elements, away from the grainy texture of everyday. It was in cloud passage, in the galactic sweep; it was the stars behind count, footage of herds of beasts thundering over the grasslands or flocks darkening the sky in migration. I saw it in the play of light over rivers, the rush of multitudes, large beauty: a utopian sunset, the black cloud bank of a looming storm.
Buy Sweet Lamb of Heaven HERE
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