Sweet Lamb of Heaven

Sweet Lamb of Heaven

by Lydia Millet

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Longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction: Blending domestic thriller and psychological horror, this compelling page-turner follows a mother fleeing her estranged husband.Lydia Millet’s chilling new novel is the first-person account of a young mother, Anna, escaping her cold and unfaithful husband, a businessman who’s just launched his first


Longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction: Blending domestic thriller and psychological horror, this compelling page-turner follows a mother fleeing her estranged husband.Lydia Millet’s chilling new novel is the first-person account of a young mother, Anna, escaping her cold and unfaithful husband, a businessman who’s just launched his first campaign for political office. When Ned chases Anna and their six-year-old daughter from Alaska to Maine, the two go into hiding in a run-down motel on the coast. But the longer they stay, the less the guests in the dingy motel look like typical tourists—and the less Ned resembles a typical candidate. As his pursuit of Anna and their child moves from threatening to criminal, Ned begins to alter his wife’s world in ways she never could have imagined.A double-edged and satisfying story with a strong female protagonist, a thrilling plot, and a creeping sense of the apocalyptic, Sweet Lamb of Heaven builds to a shattering ending with profound implications for its characters—and for all of us.

Editorial Reviews

There's a deep loneliness at the center of Lydia Millet's tenth novel, Sweet Lamb of Heaven -- and not just because its narrator, a mother named Anna, is on the run. No, this is existential, even cosmic loneliness. Anna, after all, hears voices, or she used to, until her daughter Lena began to speak. Here is how Anna describes the experience: "Later I would hear volumes and forget almost all of it, but the first phrase I picked out stayed with me despite my exhaustion. It started out as a string of foreign words, only one of which resolved, to my ear, onto anything recognizable -- something like "power," powa or poa. And then it was English: The living spring from the dead."

That last sentence might be read as a descriptor for much of Millet's fiction, which has long concerned itself with questions of mortality and extinction, and our relationship to not only the natural but also (let's call it) the elemental world. Elemental? Yes, although this comes with its own odd sort of metaphysical bent. It's no coincidence that powa, that initial word Anna recalls hearing, turns out to be "Phowa, or poa, meaning 'mindstream' in Sanskrit -- the transference of consciousness at the moment of death." And yet, to call this metaphysical in the most common sense is to underestimate what Millet has in mind. In Sweet Lamb of Heaven -- as in the stunning trilogy of novels (How the Dead Dream, Ghost Lights, Magnificence) she published between 2008 and 2012 -- her metaphysics are hard-edged, rooted in the physical, the practical: a way to investigate our connections to one another and to the generations that precede us, as well as to the natural world. That such connections are frayed is the whole point; this is the source of our existential risk. "[W]e were a blur of sympathy," Millet tells us, "the air between us pockets of space in one great body, one saltwater being, unplumbed depths where the ancestors came from, primeval well of genes . . . the feeling stretched like a generosity, the gift of oneness. Who cared about those differences we had, those minor distinctions that kept us apart?" Of course we do care quite a lot, which is the source of our dissatisfaction, our inability to see beyond ourselves, to understand that we are all together, one.

Such a conundrum is profound, and it animates Sweet Lamb of Heaven, as it has Millet's other work. To highlight this, perhaps, the novel develops in two threads: one about the voice and the other having to do with Anna's ex-husband, Ned, who is running for state senate in Alaska while stalking her and Lena, with the intention of using them as props in his campaign. "Ned's God," Millet explains, "was a life coach -- the kind for whom you have to be at least a mid-six-figure earner. Ned's God was a superstar, a braggart, and a motivational speaker, presiding from an office whose walls were lined with awards, diplomas, and framed pictures taken with celebrities. Ned's God would have to take an interest in the workings of his personal ego." Ned's God, in other words, is as empty as Ned himself, with his shiny teeth and right- wing platitudes: the emblem of a corrupted politics built on image and flash.

But something far more sinister than piety and politics are at work, as Anna recognizes. Ned, in some strange way, is attuned to his ex- wife, able to feel her, to sense her emotions, able to work his way inside her head. As Sweet Lamb of Heaven progresses, his manipulations grow increasingly outrageous, until Anna is left to question her sanity. "Maybe this is a ghost story after all," she wonders, and if she is thinking here about the voice and the transmigration of souls, the observation applies equally to her ex- husband, who will not leave her alone. Ghosts, Millet wants us to remember, can hurt us, and things beyond our conscious reckoning have the power to assert themselves.

For Anna (and, I think, for Millet too), this provokes a double vision, in which she longs for the connections she has lost while also fearing those she cannot shed. What is the source, or substance, of our truest selves: our ambition, as embodied by Ned, who grows increasingly controlling, or what Millet calls the "whole of being"? How do we truly know ourselves and one another in a world where "deep language" -- that is to say, the language of the spirit -- is being silenced by extinction and technology? "These years are our last chance," a friend tells Anna, referring to "the spirit and expression of all creatures and all people, their cultures and tongues and arts and musics, from the vaunted to the unknown." What Millet's describing is "ancient knowledge," language as identity and memory.

Anna's experience suggests that such a language has deserted us, that it is one we no longer hear. "Say God is a complex grammar," she conjectures, "that doesn't coexist with our own language, its ego-driven structures . . . Say we're left on our own . . . when we pronounce our first words and God deserts us, and it's in that respect that we're different from the other beasts and different from the aspen trees. Then it has to be said also that instead of being raised above the other kinds of life -- instead of being special as we have always claimed -- we're only more alone." More alone, yes, and also conscious of it, which is the source of Millet's troubling urgency.

David L. Ulin is the author, most recently, of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he spent ten years as book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times.

Reviewer: David L. Ulin

The New York Times Book Review - Laura Lippman
…Few novels surprise me…But Lydia Millet's Sweet Lamb of Heaven confounded me, delightfully so…I have little patience with literary novels that claim to have the propulsive momentum of a thriller, yet Millet pulls it off…The source of the mysterious voice is not the true mystery at the heart of Sweet Lamb of Heaven. Instead, it is the eternal human dilemma of what to do with knowledge once we have it. Will it lead to enlightenment or insanity? Will we be better people for it, or worse? It is Anna's voice—cool, intelligent, passionate, contradictory—that makes this novel so affecting. I resisted it initially because I was overwhelmed by my sense of dislocation, my uncertainty about where we were headed. But how I missed it when it was gone, how I yearned for it to speak to me again.
Publishers Weekly
Pulitzer Prize–finalist Millet’s latest novel (following Mermaids in Paradise) begins with Anna and her six-year-old daughter, Lena, leaving Alaska while on the run from her husband, Ned. The bad news is that sociopathic Ned doesn’t give up so easily: despite years of neglecting Lena and cheating on Anna, he’s got his eyes set on an Alaska state senator seat, and he needs Anna and Lena to fill the roles of loving wife and daughter. Anna and Lena hole up at a shoddy Maine motel, which soon fills up with other seemingly normal folks. But Anna is always on guard, a quality amplified ever since Lena was born and Anna began hearing a voice (which recites Woody Guthrie lyrics, as well as poems, dictionaries, and textbooks). When Ned shows up and threatens Anna, she must figure out a way protect Lena and herself. Anna’s touching relationship with Lena strongly contrasts her dislike of Ned, and Millet weaves a satisfying cat and mouse game between the estranged couple. Her novel reads like top-notch psychological suspense, with an emphasis on the psychological: Anna’s paranoia is smartly given an additional, possibly supernatural dimension with the unknown voice, which becomes an inextricable part of her flight. This is a page-turner from a very talented writer, and the result is a crowd-pleaser. (May)
Laura Lippman - New York Times Book Review
“Sweet Lamb of Heaven confounded me, delightfully so…I have little patience with literary novels that claim to have the propulsive momentum of a thriller, yet Millet pulls it off…It is Anna's voice—cool, intelligent, passionate, contradictory—that makes this novel so affecting…[H]ow I missed it when it was gone, how I yearned for it to speak to me again.”
Laird Hunt - Los Angeles Times
“[W]e have a real thriller on our hands…part of a higher-stakes game being played by Millet, one that will ultimately, unabashedly touch on time, beauty, horror, God, demons and the very nature of being. By novel's end…the stakes have been raised through the roof.”
Lisa Zeidner - Washington Post
“Lydia Millet is not as popular as she should be. This novel will change that…Her ambitious new novel, Sweet Lamb of Heaven, is part fast-paced thriller, part quiet meditation on the nature of God.”
Isabella Biedenharn - Entertainment Weekly
“Millet's prose is stunning…you'll have a hard time putting this down.”
Laura Miller - Slate
“[A]n extraordinary metaphysical thriller from one of America’s most inventive novelists.”
O Magazine
“[A] hypnotic novel of psychological and philosophical suspense.”
Boris Katchka - Vulture
“[P]repare to be surprised by more than plot twists. . . . the Pulitzer finalist’s philosophical fireworks add layers of energy and mystery.”
“[A]ddictive, unsettling… sneaks in some high-minded themes (the nature of reality, the fragility of human connection) without distracting one iota from the suspense. A winner.”
Mark Athitakis - Minneapolis Star Tribune
“We didn't know we needed a metaphysical thriller, but here Millet is with a fine one… A feat of genre-breaking.”
Matthew Gilbert - The Boston Globe
“A rare pleasure to read… Millet’s fine prose [is] as rich with fresh imagery as it is open-minded to life’s hidden possibilities.”
David Wright - The Seattle Times
“Millet evinces a rare capacity to surprise and fascinate readers… Unpredictable in the best sense, Millet’s eye-opening stories and conceptions are irresistibly interesting. This may be her most beguiling and accessible creation yet.”
New Yorker
“Millet’s sense of pacing is acute and her prose is glittering and exact.”
John Warner - Chicago Tribune
“[O]nce it gets its hooks into you, it doesn't let go.”
Caroline Leavitt - San Francisco Chronicle
“[A] novel so eerie, so chilling and provocative, that you might find yourself rethinking everything you thought you knew about language, belief, and where our human race might be going.”
Donna Seaman - Booklist
“Operating, as always, on multiple levels with artistic panache, emotional precision, and profound intent, Millet transforms a violent family conflict into a war of cosmic proportions over nothing less than life itself.”
Library Journal
This new work from Pulitzer Prize finalist Millet (Magnificence) offers essentially two stories in one, and they don't sit comfortably together. Married to faithless and manipulative Ned, who virtually ignores her and their only child, Lena, Anna walks away from their Alaska home, ending up at a remote but somehow charmed hotel in Maine. Ned is not about to let her go, however, particularly as he is planning a run for state senate and needs the pretense of a supportive family for the campaign. He is downright creepy in his insistence and ability to track and harass "his girls," reminding us of the lengths some people will go to craft their own stories and control others. Folded into this plot is the mystical tale of Anna hearing voices upon Lena's birth, which leads her to others like her and the understanding that deep language belongs to all sentient creatures yet generally gets lost to humans. Dominant Ned, the enemy of such communication, can enter Anna's mind and bend it in ways that would be persuasive in an sf novel but don't work here. VERDICT Compelling in parts, but with Anna's very real battles with Ned deflected by fuzzy meditation, not successful as a whole. [See Prepub Alert, 12/14/15.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2016-02-17
A mother tries to reconcile the voices in her head and an extortionist estranged husband in a peculiar, stirring thriller. Anna, the narrator of Millet's 10th novel (Mermaids in Paradise, 2014, etc.), began hearing an inexplicable "stream of chatter" after her daughter, Lena, was born. The voices diminished after a year, and a split from her husband, Ned, prompted her to move from her native Alaska to a coastal Maine motel with a decidedly eerie cast; in time she'll learn it's an unwitting magnet for others with similar conditions. But Anna has more pressing problems: Ned is running for the Alaska state Senate and wants Anna and Lena to head back to Anchorage to serve as photo-op props. When Anna demurs, Ned turns threatening; when she tries to hasten a divorce, Lena is kidnapped. Millet has a knack for planting plainspoken, world-weary narrators in otherworldly circumstances, and Anna is one of her sharpest, most intriguingly philosophical creations. Though she considers medical and scientific reasons for the chatter ("filtered particles from the immense cloud of content carried by those millions of waves that pass through us all the time"), her head is also aswim with stories of mysterious symbiotic tree colonies and a "deeper language, an urge that underlies our patterns of survival." Rather than feeling like two novels on separate tracks—New Age ramble and evil-ex drama—those threads braid effectively, especially when it comes to politics. If Ned's campaign can stage-manage Anna's life so effectively, how much of a force is it in everything else? Millet is content to leave the woollier questions unanswered, but the thriller writer in her brings the book to a satisfying climax. A top-notch tale of domestic paranoia that owes a debt to spooky psychological page-turners like Rosemary's Baby yet is driven by Millet's particular offbeat thinking.
Washington Post
“Lydia Millet is not as popular as she should be. This novel will change that… That Millet can smuggle her original insights into a structure featuring a rollicking kidnapping plot and deliciously well-drawn characters makes her achievement even more remarkable.”
Laura Lipman for The New York Times
“But Lydia Millet’s “Sweet Lamb of Heaven” confounded me, delightfully so. …I have little patience with literary novels that claim to have the propulsive momentum of a thriller, yet Millet pulls it off.
From the Publisher
“12 Books for Mother’s Day”
A mother who hears voices from her baby and then goes into hiding from her psycho politician husband? It’s not at all what you’d expect (it’s deep and decidedly for the sane).
Laura Miller
“[A]n extraordinary metaphysical thriller from one of America’s most inventive novelists… This is the skeleton—and no small amount of the flesh—of a Stephen King novel...But Millet’s fiction inhabits a different moral universe from King’s. In his novels, the nature of evil goes largely unquestioned; what concerns King is the task of summoning the courage to confront it. Sweet Lamb of Heaven uses the same epic devices to put forth a new idea of horror...Millet gives us a new paradigm; her adversary isn’t horror’s usual bad guy, an atavistic entity hell-bent on destruction for its own sake, but the modern world’s infatuation with manufactured, convenient sameness. The showdown still comes decked out in all the suspenseful trappings we love best—a plot filled with surveillance and intrigue; a terrifyingly malevolent antagonist; an endangered child; a ragtag crew of brave resistors—but the soul of humanity is only one modest portion of what’s at stake."

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

Meet the Author

Lydia Millet is the author of the novels Sweet Lamb of Heaven, Mermaids in Paradise, Ghost Lights (a New York Times Notable Book), Magnificence (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize) and other books. Her story collectionLove in Infant Monkeys was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She lives outside Tucson, Arizona.

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