These Voices Are Legion: A review of Lydia Millet’s “Sweet Lamb of Heaven”
Lydia Millet is a prolific Pulitzer-nominated writer, with 10 novels and three young adult works to her credit.
Sweet Lamb of Heaven, her recent novel, is a literary thriller that bears witness to the current political climate with paradigm-shifting precision.
Millet worked as a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications. Perhaps she caught wind of America’s evangelical political underbelly long before the rest of us. In Sweet Lamb of Heaven, she peels back the layers of contemporary realities (think Trump, think Tea Party).
Think Sarah Palin and family values. Think mind control.
Sweet Lamb of Heaven stretches this scenario as far as it can go, and then some.
The novel opens with the protagonist, Anna, discovering her pregnancy. Her Alaskan businessman husband, Ned, doesn’t want the baby. Anna sits through a marriage-for-show and gives birth to a daughter, Lena.
Ned is an angular, smile-and-all-teeth clichéd conservative politician. Think Dimples. A suit and tie. Think extramarital affairs and empty religious rhetoric.
“He’d been indifferent to me for a long time, as he’s indifferent to most people who aren’t of use to him,” Anna reveals.
In addition to a distant spouse and a newborn, Anna starts to hear snippets of voices that only stop when Lena takes a nap. She hears hears foreign languages, lines of poetry, singing.
These voices aren’t violent commands or psychotic commentary. They have “the appearance of fluency in all tongues and gives an impression of encyclopedic knowledge.”
She researches potential causes, from visits to neurologists and therapists. Her questions and contemplations seem sane. But she has a deeper, more intuitive awareness. Anna knows that her, “brain’s a little above average, according to standard aptitude tests, but not far above. Whatever intelligence I have isn’t rated for the ornate subtlety of the divine.”
What could be written off as a stress is compounded during an instance when Ned indicates that he hear the voices, too.
The voices stop the day Lena starts talking.
Six years later, Anna takes Lena and flees as Ned announces a run for Alaskan political office. Paranoid and unsure of Ned’s response, Anna navigates off the grid, surviving on a small family inheritance. She and Lena end up at a run-down Maine motel under the quiet care of the owner, Don.
As the novel progresses, Anna discovers that others at the motel, a hodgepodge of characters from around the country, have something in common: they have all heard the voices.
“If you pay attention to the culture,” offers Don, the motel owner, “you can see these threads of recognition. There are interferences and smokescreens all over, but the threads are perceptible if you know where to find them.”
And, other things can be found, like Anna and Lena. Ned reappears in a diabolical manner. Anna realizes that her husband has known her whereabouts the whole time. The plot shifts when Ned kidnaps Lena to manipulate Anna back into his life for photo-op campaign purposes.
Anna comes to understand that the some of the voices are connected to him, as well as to larger forces aimed at tilting humanity in a frightening direction.
These voices access a pulse that others seem to miss. They are the equivalent of communication in an ecological biome. Trees “talk” with each other as a means for protection.
Anna writes in her diary: “What if one of the aspen trees was cut down, while the rest of the organism remained. Did the remainder grieve?”
(Millet, by the way, has a background in conservation. She has a North Carolina connection as a graduate of UNC and Duke University).
A lesser writer might take this intricate plot and literary device into the realm of overwrought woo-woo, but Millet’s writing is flawless, and the novel drips with lyricism. Sweet Lamb of Heaven is long listed for the National Book Award for Fiction.
Millet gives the reader a supernatural satire rooted in politics that seem saccharine but harbors malevolent objectives. Her writing bends genres as she explores God, philosophy and politics and their intersections.
Considering the surreal twists of this election season, Sweet Lamb of Heaven is a story that many readers will find eerily relevant.
Deonna Kelli Sayed is a Greensboro-based writer. To learn more, visit dksayed.com and follow her on Twitter @deonnakelli