Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet

Earlier this year, as soon as I heard news of Lydia Millet’s newest novel, I diligently set about reading the last two novels of her recent trilogy (How the Dead Dream, Ghostlights, Magnificence). Even when this author writes a trilogy, it is more like three loosely connected novels, the way some novels are a collection of loosely connected stories. I finished the trilogy satisfied that she had given me three distinct examples of her worldview shown through the eyes of three related characters.

As I began to read some of the early publicity for Sweet Lamb of Heaven, I became somewhat alarmed. I got the impression that it was a type of thriller with a runaway mother and child being pursued by a creepy husband. Was she pandering? I mean, anyone who loves Millet will tell you she deserves to be better known. Had she lowered herself to write something possibly more commercially successful?

I will admit, sometimes I am a reader of little faith. I need not have worried. In fact, she has written the anti-Gone Girl. Surely you read that and can admit to doing so. Possibly you saw the movie. I did both and mostly felt annoyed, a bit insulted, though I had to admire the twist at the end.

Anna is an unhappy wife with a young daughter she decided to have even though her husband Ned “threw his hands into the air palms-forward” when she insisted on going through with her pregnancy. “Afterward his schedule got fuller, his long work hours longer, his attention more completely diverted.” Anna admits she began to give up on him from that point.

She has Lena on her own with only hospital staff attending. When she wakes up after the birth she begins to hear voices. It is a cacophony of overlapping voices and continuous whenever she is near Lena. Only when Lena is sleeping or when Anna in desperation gets a sitter and leaves the house, do the voices leave her in peace. Out of the babble she discerns a word (powa or poa) and a phrase (The living spring from the dead.)

A diligent researcher, she moves through possible causes. Delirium, postpartum depression, ear or neurology issues, hallucinations, demons. She calls it “the voice” and keeps a diary. On one of the rare evenings when Ned comes home for dinner, in one of the most eerie moments in the book, he hears the voice too!

The early chapters left me less than hooked though. There are clues that Ned is some sort of psychopath, some background on the marriage, the fact that Anna brought money to the union, and her views on religion. Anna had loved Ned in the beginning but had failed to see the warning signs, though she is clearly not stupid or crazy, just naïve. She soldiers on with the voice and her research, learning that powa or poa means a Buddhist meditation practice described as a “transference of consciousness” or “mind stream.” But once Ned heard it she stopped looking for its origin or cause.

On the day that one-year-old Lena says her first word, the voice falls silent. Anna realizes that the voice passes through those newly born and when they speak, it moves on. She and her daughter live blissfully through the girl’s toddler years with the presence or absence of Ned nothing more than a slight annoyance. Sadly, Anna had fallen once more into naiveté. Even when she knew that she had to leave him, it took her several years to do so.

By that time, Ned had decided to go into politics as an adjunct to his business ventures. He had had many lovers but suddenly became a “family values” man. Though Anna only took a portion of their assets, he began to stalk her. He needed the appearance of a happy family to support his campaign.

She is only mildly careful about keeping her whereabouts concealed and by the time he finds her, Lena is six and they are living in a remote and somewhat rundown seaside motel on the coast of Maine. Lena is a bright and happy child, very outgoing, alert and smart. In fact, she is one of the most endearing children I have met in a novel. She makes friends with everyone who stays at the motel and her most special grownup friend is Kay, a former nurse for newborns in a small hospital.

Ned snatches Lena with ease and there follow many chapters devoted to Anna’s anguish and anxiety. Nothing unusual except that by now you know the mother and the child so intimately, it is as if it has happened to you. So stealthily that I hardly noticed it though, the awareness of something strange going on with the other guests at the motel had been building. All of them have a personal affliction in common and all of them knew the motel manager before they came to stay.

Here, dear reader is where I leave you. The plot that wove back and forth from past to present but seemed to meander a bit too much suddenly becomes electric with the wizardry of Lydia Millet. Her themes of women who get a grip, of more than meets the eye, of how to live in our increasingly strange society, and of what really holds us together, coalesce. I can tell you that there is a happy ending, but the novel turned out to be a parable and I would not dream of spoiling that for you.

I can tell you though that just recently, Sweet Lamb of Heaven was included on the fiction long list for the National Book Award. I sincerely hope Lydia Millet wins the prize she deserves.

Judy Krueger has been reviewing books since 2009. She also runs a literary blog http://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com. She is a member of at least 5 reading groups and reads 7 to 10 books a month. Every now and then, she works on the autobiography of her life as a reader or on her novel in progress. You can follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JudyJudykrueger.