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“I have the worst idea for a book! It’s the single-worst idea for a book I’ve ever had,” Lydia Millet told her friend and fellow author Jenny Offill. “See, there’s a baby. And God speaks through it! It’s a terrible idea, isn’t it? I can’t wait to write it.”
Offill, Millet recalls in an interview with Bethanne Patrick, “encouraged me. That’s what friends are for.”
That novel, Sweet Lamb of Heaven, is earning warm reviews. Part domestic thriller, part psychological horror story, part meditation on politics and faith, the chilling tale is the first-person account of a young mother, Anna, who heard inscrutable voices after he child was born – which stopped once the child began speaking. Now she is now escaping her cold and unfaithful husband, a bible-thumping 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.
The novel “answers the question of how Anna will deal with Ned,” Mark Athitakis writes in his Star-Tribune review. “But the bigger question hanging over the novel — the reason for all those rattling voices and that oddly magnetic community — is what larger forces govern our existences. Millet, like Anna, is obsessed with ‘the background orchestration of the deeper language, an urge that underlies our patterns of survival.’ If that sounds a little too New Age-y, there's plenty of "House of Cards"-style scheming going on. But Millet is also a master of capturing feelings of paranoia in a host of ways, from family to our health to our information-soaked world. Politics are just one way we're manipulated, and the creepy pleasure of the novel is in Millet's suggestion that we're in a constant struggle to gain a sense of control.”
In her Slate review, Laura Millet observes: “Millet is quite serious with Sweet Lamb of Heaven, and when she wants to, she can unleash a bladelike lyricism: “We watch movies, read books made glamorous by black-and-red palettes of horror, the hint of an otherworldly malice running like quicksilver through the marrow of our bones. We like to call the dark rumors demonic, like to have monsters to fear instead of time, aging, the falling away of companions.’ It’s true, we have an insatiable appetite for end-times entertainment, where the heroes face towering threats so much more spectacular than the mundane diminishment that awaits us all.
“And yet, ironically, the world really is in peril, its fate hanging in the balance. We are faced with a doomsday scenario that most of us routinely choose to ignore, as well as a drumbeat of lesser oblivions. (Several of Millet’s recent novels have dealt with endangered species.) As a novelist whose central subject is humanity’s vexed relationship with the natural world, she must find this blind spot perverse. Here is our chance to be heroic ourselves, to rescue the planet, or at least to make a credible last stand. Instead we prefer to stay home and watch other people battle a pretend apocalypse on “The Walking Dead.”
“So 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. Her vision of the good is transhuman. In opposition to Ned’s cold, hollow will, Sweet Lamb of Heaven champions the fractal beauty of the chaotic and fecund, ‘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 was organic and alive, the broad, branching tree of evolution that was history and biology and all kinds of astonishing bodies full of ancient knowledge.’ What does it take to make these things seem worth fighting for, you can almost hear the novelist ask. Good question.”
Lydia Millet’s Top Ten List
1. JR by William Gaddis (1975).
2. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925).
3. Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ by C. S. Lewis (1952).
4. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (1971).
5. Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard (1984).
6. The War with the Newts by Karel Capek (1936).
7. Auto-da-Fé by Elias Canetti (1935).
8. Red the Fiend by Gilbert Sorrentino (1995).
9. Masquerade and Other Stories by Robert Walser (1878–1956).
10. Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, a trilogy by Samuel Beckett (1951–54).