Novel: Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet

It’s tempting to say Lydia Millet’s done it again with her novel Sweet Lamb of Heaven (2016), but that wouldn’t be entirely true. She’s written a differently great book, just as lyrical and haunting, but angrier, more despairing, and much more tightly wound. It’s a taut, disturbing psychological thriller tinged with existential horror, and it packs a mean punch.

It chronicles the ordeal of Anna, a thirtysomething woman who, with her young daughter Lena, leaves an ill-fated marriage when it becomes clear that calculated, philandering husband Ned has no interest in her or in fatherhood. From Alaska she flees to the coast of Maine, where she takes refuge in a modest motel populated by curious, lonely characters with whom she develops a quirky rapport. This peaceful, transient life doesn’t last, however. When Ned decides to run for political office, he needs to rewrite his public narrative, and that includes having a subservient wife and smiling daughter by his side. Ned’s angling selfishness soon reveals itself as dangerous sociopathy, and Anna’s new friends may not be an adequate line of defense against what he has in store for her.

Millet has long been an astute critic of the American zeitgeist’s uglier aspects, but usually lightens her insights with snarky, smart humor. By contrast, Sweet Lamb of Heaven is unmitigated: tense, disturbing, and laced with creeping menace. It opens quietly, beautifully, as she invests the reader in Anna’s plight and Lena’s charms, but as Ned becomes more and more present in the story—even offstage, he oozes threat—the story turns into a gut-wrenching tale of suspense. It’s a convincing depiction of a psychologically abusive relationship, the kind of narrative you power through in the hopes the protagonist will experience some kind of relief. But above that layer of personal oppression is another, political one: Ned is emblematic of the corruption, money, and callous power dynamics that drive American government. The more he leverages his clout against Anna, the more horrifying it gets. It’s a piercing metaphor for political helplessness, and Millet leans into it with an unusually fierce despair.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t hope: there is, and it’s emotionally sustaining. It comes through the novel’s unexpected genre element, a kind of magic realist connection between Anna and her oddball companions that adds another layer of surreal mystery to the proceedings. This element is understated but masterful, infusing the world with a mesmerizing ambience in the vein of Philip K. Dick. It gives the novel heart, and ultimately contributes to satisfying, brow-mopping closure.

I’ve been singing Millet’s praises for years now, but this may be her most impressive work to date: a sharp, thematically rich, nerve-wracking read that smolders with suspense and blazes with insight.

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