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book review

Guided by voices in ‘Sweet Lamb of Heaven’

Yes, Lydia Millet’s new novel is, as the jacket promises, “the story of Anna, the mother of a young child, [who is ] fleeing a manipulative and unfaithful husband.”

But no, the haunting “Sweet Lamb of Heaven” is nothing like the marital-discord novels that might arrive bearing somewhat similar descriptions — a twisty thriller such as “Gone Girl,” say, or a fraught romance by Luanne Rice. It’s nothing like them at all and nothing like most literary novels. It’s a rare thing, a semi-experimental narrative, and, thanks to Millet’s precisely elliptical language, it’s a rare pleasure to read.

The best genre designation for “Sweet Lamb of Heaven” might be metaphysical thriller. As the story unfolds in Anna’s no-nonsense voice, it passes through a number of categories, honoring yet defying each. One minute it’s “The Good Wife”; the next it’s “Lost” or Stephen King; and there is always a tinge of Jean Paul Sartre afoot. If you’ve ever read Rachel Ingalls, the extraordinary author of “Mrs. Caliban,” you will detect some of her fabulist stylings here, too, coupled with the sense that the perplexing things that happen to Anna may be externalizations of her own chaotic life.

The marriage storyline is the most conventional one: Anna and handsome husband Ned are emotionally estranged, a situation that worsens after Anna chooses to have their baby, Lena, against his wishes. Ned is a thorough creep who can’t be troubled to hide his affairs, who’s always on his cellphone, and whose indifference to his family borders on sociopathic. Naturally, he has decided to run for state Senate in Alaska, where they live. “[P]olitics grew in him like metastasis, branching into a network threaded throughout his veins and nerves and bones,” Anna explains. Ned doesn’t want Anna or Lena, but he wants to present voters with a picture-perfect family. He is not pleased when Anna and now 6-year-old Lena run off. How far will he go to get them back?


The more peculiar adjoining plotline in “Sweet Lamb of Heaven” is that, until Lena could speak, Anna heard a voice emanating from her. Millet spends a number of fascinating pages describing that voice, which Anna heard even though Lena wasn’t moving her mouth. She heard different languages, gibberish, and, she observes, “what sounded like recitations of texts of all kinds, poems, fictions both literary and mass-market, movie scripts and stage plays, histories, dictionaries, textbooks, biographies, news stories.” Like the reader, Anna is fully aware — but not convinced — that what she heard may have been coming from her own mind: “Buried in my unconscious must be some capacity for photographic memory, I thought.”


Anna and Lena hide out at a motel on the coast of Maine, where they fall in with a number of guests. This is where the story becomes “Lost”-like, as the guests seem to be mysteriously linked, and as Anna’s paranoia about Ned grows, and as she continues to explore the reason she heard the voice. One of Anna’s virtues is that she’s a relatively dependable and wryly intelligent narrator, and she provides all of the Web passages she finds that relate to what she calls “my hallucination.” That’s where a lot of the novel’s most thought-provoking ideas emerge, through her research and her consideration of possibilities. Is there a deeper language available to us all? Do we only perceive what we are ready to perceive?


I won’t spoil where “Sweet Lamb of Heaven” lands on these and the other questions that Anna ponders. That’s the greatest pleasure of the book — journeying with Anna, waiting for a reveal alongside her, wondering what it will be. That and Millet’s fine prose, which is as rich with fresh imagery as it is open-minded to life’s hidden possibilities.


By Lydia Millet

Norton, 250 pp., $25.95

Matthew Gilbert is the Globe’s TV critic, and his book “Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park” was recently released in paperback. He can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.