When Lydia Millet’s protagonist, Anna, clearly hears these words in her head shortly after giving birth, she believes herself to be suffering from some kind of postpartum delirium. Soon after, voices begin an incessant stream of prattle that leads her to some frightening truths.
Sweet Lamb of Heaven defied my initial expectations. Leaping genres, it morphs from thriller to mystery to science fiction. Tones of the apocalyptic creep throughout the pages, alternating between religious and scientific predictions of end times. For a literary work, it delivers a fulfilling amount of surreal and horrific images, enough to keep even a staunch reader of speculative fiction interested. What I appreciate about Millet is her use of topics not typically addressed in traditional published fiction, including mermaids and the extinction of various species.
Sweet Lamb of Heaven is Millet’s 11th book. Her third novel, My Happy Life, won the 2003 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, and she has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize as well as a Guggenheim fellow. Once a copyeditor for Hustler, she now works for the Center for Biological Diversity, which holds a belief that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature and that its loss impoverishes society. Millet blends these beliefs seamlessly in her writing.
Millet’s support of the environmental is no less prominent in her new novel. Anna’s daughter, Lena, is a strict vegetarian, shrinking away from the sheepskin toy her father, Ned, gives her. There is also a concern for what we as humans leave behind. Anna begins to discover that our obsession with technology and avoidance of deep personal communication, innate in animals, has begun to destroy humanity, paving the way for something darker to take our place. One of the more mysterious characters in the novel, Kay, sends Anna a cryptic email that states:
The future is nothing but language, see, not languageS but language […] Programming Language, ad talk, 1 speech for all, a juggernot, that’s where we’re going Anna. All the native languages dead, all we’l have left is shells & false things & tongues spoken for profit &/or by machines.
In one of the most horrific scenes in the book, Kay reveals herself to Anna in a vision. Instead of teeth, her gaping mouth is filled with a gray binary code of 1s and 0s. “Suddenly her mouth open wide, wider and wider, far too wide. And something ugly streamed out. ‘Your little girl won’t even need her face,’ she said.” By the time Anna is able to grab a tenuous hold on the meaning of her vision and Kay’s email — that we as humans are only presenting ourselves and sharing ourselves through the filter of the web, and it is destroying us, changing us — the young woman is dead.
In a November 2014 interview with Salon, Millet notes that publishing tends to have a narrow view of what topics can be successfully tackled in literary fiction:
Well, the establishment’s also pretty bored by literary work that deals with our treatment of the rest of being — you know, other animals, the rest of life on Earth, the creatures beyond the man-apes. Like the tragedy of how our men treat our women, the tragic way humans treat nonhumans is still, to many U.S. fiction arbiters, also irrelevant as a conversation, often dismissed as a boutique topic that’s the fodder of cranks and tree huggers. Women and the rest of species in existence: two flaming badges of uncool.
In Sweet Lamb of Heaven, Millet does not avoid these “uncool” subjects. Beyond her use of the environment, concerns regarding “how our men treat our women” are central. The novel is a first-person account of a mother attempting to escape her cold and unfaithful husband. The husband, Ned, grows increasingly more desperate over the course of the story, taking greater and greater chances, putting Lena’s freedom and Anna’s sanity in jeopardy. Along the way, Anna and her daughter are drawn to The Wind and Pines, a dilapidated motel on the coast of Maine. While there, Anna encounters several other guests who have also heard these voices, which force each of them to confront the abuse present in their own lives. One of these other guests is Kay, and it is Ned who takes credit for her killing, his justification being that Kay was too close to the truth.
Millet’s time studying at Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was perhaps what helped form her portrayal of the character Ned. He is a South Carolinian, soft-spoken in his threats and able to present a charming face to the world, all the while plotting its downfall. During the course of the novel, he decides to run for office and adopts a family values platform, which his wife has never before heard him support. He also begins to spout biblical passages about redemption and change of heart, reminiscent of a repentant evangelist. He makes for a convincing “big bad.”
Where I struggled with this work is the description of Anna, according to the back cover copy, as “a strong female protagonist.” Certainly, she is the main character of the story. In the beginning, Anna makes her own decisions. She ignores her husband’s request that she have a D&C to terminate her pregnancy. All the doctor’s visits and preparations for the baby’s arrival are hers alone. But once baby Lena arrives on the scene and the voices assert themselves, Anna’s strength seems to fade. Things simply “happen” to Anna; she doesn’t actively make strides. It doesn’t help that her name isn’t mentioned until almost halfway through, something typically associated with a character of less significance.
I wondered why she didn’t divorce her husband, particularly in face of multiple infidelities, which she admits to knowing about. She seems slow to accept things about her husband that almost everyone else notices on meeting him, to the extent of getting angry with the people who have tried to help her free herself from him. His intent to kill her, for instance, is a hard thing to brush off with an I’m-not-sure-he’d-do-that attitude.
In addition, Anna admits to letting her guard down multiple times. Even after her husband drugs her and kidnaps her daughter, forcing her to comply with his wishes, Anna finds it a struggle to forget the safety of her old life. She lapses back into forgetfulness: of the surveillance she’s been under and of her near brushes with death. In that regard, Anna can be unreliable, not only because she’s heard voices in the past but also because of her inability to recall how she finds the motel or how her husband was able to enter her room, drug her, and kidnap Lena.
Understandably, because of his chillingly casual violence toward her, she cannot recall what occurred during the face off with her husband. It is something I, in all honesty, expected to happen, given her husband’s escalating control over her and his desire to get his way at all costs. My anticipation and my fears, however, were with Anna during the entire novel. Ned’s apathy toward his wife and daughter were disconcerting at first, sending off those warning bells most women have. Millet then deftly ramps up the menace in Ned. Because he is always there — even when Anna is sure he’s campaigning in his home state of Alaska — this novel provides a powerful glimpse into the lingering effects of mental and emotional abuse.
Sweet Lamb of Heaven has the makings of a horror movie: the omnipresent villain whose evil is only seen by a select few, a mysterious motel with a host of unusual guests, inexplicable voices, along with Anna’s physical and mental isolation from those who try to help her.
Millet’s writing is crisp and fast-paced. Even the portions in which Anna is alone with the voices or performing research on what may be wrong with her are engrossing, clawing at the reader’s impulse to predict the next scene. The author is confident with the inexplicable, revealing information her characters have collected sporadically during their own research, whether it is an online search or one of the soul. There is no spoon-feeding of clear-cut answers, and Millet’s praiseworthy restraint from explaining the inexplicable gives this novel aspects of the modern Gothic.
I appreciate when an author has enough confidence in her story — and in her narrator — to allow the reader a sliver of the decision-making process. Anna may frustrate us, but we never leave her side, and we root for her during her struggle. And fortunately, it isn’t all end times in Millet’s book: Anna and the guests at The Wind and Pines — those who have heard the voices — are asked whether they are ready to take on who or what lies out there. Perhaps what’s best about Sweet Lamb of Heaven is that I believe they are.