sweet lamb of heaven

Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet

I was lucky to be introduced to the mystery/thriller genre by way of Tana French.

I mean, how lucky was I? To be ushered into the genre by the queen of the twisted word? Well, she wasn't then - she was unknown then, a debut author. But she remains the pinnacle for me (and many other readers, I know).

The drawback to this, of course, is that there's no up from the top. Though I try to be more careful, these days, about which books I'm spending my time with, I still stumble across some that are mediocre, and after a few years of delving into the genre, the novelty of murders, disappearances, gaslighting has lost a bit of the sheen. 

So lately, I've been particularly pleased with novels that are presented as mysteries or other mainstream-ish thrillers but harbor clever twists. I don't mean twists as in the Gone Girl sort (though they're fun, of course) but rather that these mysteries range from lightly to heavily invested with elements of other genres, like magical realism, supernatural, horror. 

And Sweet Lamb of Heaven is one of the best examples of this I've yet discovered. Which is why I don't want to say too much. I was hesitant to mention this alternate sort of narrative at all, but it's a rather large element and strong hints of it are right there in the synopsis. 

Anna, at first blush, is a young mother on the run from her estranged husband. We don't really know why, at first, though she makes it clear from the opening sentences that he demanded she have an abortion and her decision to have the child was the first time she really contradicted him and so was also the first time to realize there was something off about him. For a couple of years or so, he didn't really care about their absence but now needs them to stand by his side, the perfect beautiful family, while he runs for office in Alaska. 

All this alone could be strong enough to start and likely hold a narrative, but Millet alters the reader's expectations by revealing that Anna's been hearing voices. Well, rather a voice, one that showed up the moment her daughter Lena was born. She sets out to logically understand what's happening: hallucinations? postpartum depression? schizophrenia? But any theory she tenuously clings to is destroyed when a slight incident convinces her that her husband may have also heard the voice one night, briefly.   

That's all I'll say, I think, other than that the basic woman-and-daughter-on-the-run story + the hearing-a-voice element are also combined with some fantastically engaging writing.

"Strange things exist, astonishing oddities - transparent butterflies, three-foot-wide parasites that look like orange flowers, babies born pregnant with their own twins. There are fish like seas serpents, fifty-five feet long, lizards whose species are all female; there's the mysterious roar from outer space, the contagiousness of yawns, the origin of continental drift."

"'Nana! Grumbo!' cried Lena, and ran forward. Her pet name for her grandfather, invented I'm not sure how, has always been redolent of a booze-soaked clown - ill-suited to the personage of my father, whose bearing afforded him, in the past, a quiet dignity. These days he doesn't know his name, he draws a blank equally on his history and the identities of his family, but still the mantle of that dignity hasn't entirely dropped from him. He holds fast to my mother when he walks, a dreamy look on his face suggesting a dim and lovely scene back in the recesses of his mind, a hidden spring from which he alone may drink."

"He used to be a feral librarian, he said, before he went back to school. That was what they call them, he said, librarians without a master's degree."

This is my first novel from Millet, though I've also been interested in Mermaids in ParadiseSweet has definitely convinced me to move Mermaids up in the queue and to pin her to my reading radar. 

Sweet Lamb of Heaven will be released in the United States on May 3, 2016. It's published by W.W. Norton & Company, who provided my advanced copy.