"Sweet Lamb of Heaven" by Lydia Millet

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Lydia Millet has captured something in Sweet Lamb of Heaven, and I feel at the very end of my abilities to say what it is. This Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel captures in frightening detail the horrifying political world we live in today - this example deals with the American version. This novel will haunt you, and stretch your imagination, and scare you, in an Alfred Hitchcock mode. It’s challenging, head-turning stuff. Supremely rewarding.

Anna, a sometime college lecturer in languages and literature, takes her six year-old daughter Lena and flees her emotionally-remote husband. (The husband is so remote, in fact, that midway through the story Anna checks off a long list of characteristics, and decides he is sociopathic. It doesn’t take the reader that long to figure it out.) We learn from the outset that after her daughter was born Anna had hallucinations - I don’t say “suffered” because the term doesn’t fit. She hears voices speaking to her. The voice seems versed in a wide range of subjects: “single-cell organisms, hockey scores, feathers on dinosaurs, celebrity suicides, the pattern of Pleistocene extinctions, the fate of the tribe called the Nez Perce; relativity, particle accelerators,” and so on. It speaks to Anna in English, Spanish, and French. Anna also thinks she hears English that sounds like Shakespeare, and Middle English, which she encountered while reading Chaucer.

And it is this breadth of the voice, in subject matter, language, and temporal origin, that is the key for me. It supports Anna’s fellow “listeners,” a group of people who have also had the auditory hallucinations, which we meet at a motel on the rocky coast of Maine - the end of the earth. The one salient opinion to emerge from the motley crew is that the voices have something in common with a common subconscious, a language which is the foundation of all life on earth. 

Lay on top of these metaphysical considerations the thread of Anna’s cold, repellant husband. He uses his over-the-top charisma and ingratiating acting ability to start a career in politics. He corners Anna in Maine, coerces her back to Alaska to appear as part of his campaign for state senate, all the while having coopted the “family” agenda of a reactionary political party. After getting her back “on board” for photo ops and meet-and-greets, he sends her emails with each day’s appointments, bullet points of opinions to express if pressed; Anna and her daughter have daily sessions for makeup and clothes.

And thus is the shallowness and venality of modern-day politics exposed to us. Estranged husband Ned despises Anna, but hauls her up before cameras and microphones during his campaign. He threatens her and treats his daughter as though she doesn’t exist - and then the real fun starts. In a few jarring pages, Anna hallucinates something very strange indeed. She watches herself age before her eyes: terrified at the pace of her growing hair and nails, she emerges from her bath to see Lena and a trusted friend still seated on a hotel bed, reading, where she just left them. The sequence abruptly turns to a midsummer festival in Anna’s home town, and she has apparently lost three months, just like that. She has been in an altered state the whole time and cannot remember any of it.

Thus through strong drugs and an outwardly orthodox relationship, does Ned control and attempt to ruin Anna’s life. This Hitchcockian episode illustrates the very real and ruthless impulse of those who would control speech and discourse to their own ends and agendas. Ms. Millet takes it further: the totalitarians would control or even exterminate not only the public policy discussion, but would ruin language of any and all kinds. There is grist here for a much more in-depth treatment, which I promised to try to grind to fine flour at some point in the near future.

Suffice it at current to say that any modern reader interested in communication, politics, sensory perception, or theories of language would be challenged and delighted with this book. It’s also a damn fine read: something sinister’s always lurking near the surface; a group of friends and supporters are a particularly motley crew and we can’t be sure they’re reliable. Anna lives a desperate existence on the margin, and sometimes has reason to doubt her own stability. It seems unlikely that you’ll be as confounded as I was by Sweet Lamb of Heaven. I recommend you go ahead and try to find out.
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