A Rich, Hauntingly Poignant Novel - Luminous Prose.
Reviewed in the United States on 28 March 2005
Twenty-nine year-old Karen Lowens is HIV-positive. The disease is in its final stages, but she will probably die by lethal injection before AIDS takes it course. Karen is on Death Row in the Mountain View facility, Gatestown, Texas, awaiting her execution. It won't be long now. She is a convicted serial killer. Her victims, all johns - all but one, were mostly truckers. So many had taken more than the pound of flesh they had paid her for. Lowens had been beaten, abused, and broken so many times - torn-up internally by the constant pounding against her flesh. The horror began the first time her mother sold her for drug money at age twelve. Unfortunately, one evening, Harry Mills, an innocent man and all around nice guy, bumped into Karen's rage in a convenience store. She shot him dead. Although Lowens resists any close connection with her fellow prisoners, she is curious about a new inmate, Sharleen, who has just become a member of this exclusive cellblock. She was dubbed the Satan Killer by the media. "Karen thinks about things to say to Sharleen. She wants to tell her that she is not alone in knowing what it feels like to tear through human life. She wants to tell Sharleen that hatred ebbs to a steady ache.....Sharleen, she does not say, there is joy in breathing out, knowing you can breathe in again."
Twenty-nine year-old Franny Wren is a doctor, trained in some of the country's finest universities and hospitals. Orphaned at a young age, her Uncle Jack, a physician, took her in after her parents' death, and made sure she wanted for nothing. Fran has just lost a patient - one she had became extremely attached to. Anna Gillison, a precocious little girl was cancer-ridden when Dr. Wren took over her case. She was able to persuade the child's parents to allow a brutally painful bone transplant - a long-shot - rather than let Anna die peacefully in her own bed. The child died in terrible pain, not at all in peace. "'I don't think I can do this,' Anna had said. 'Can I let go now?' And, 'Will everything be here when I am gone?'" Franny is devastated, guilt-ridden and beyond sorrow. In this fragile state, just after Anna's funeral, she is informed of her uncle's death. She leaves New York City for Gatesville, Texas, her childhood home, to make funeral arrangements.
Celia Mills is a young widow unable to move-on with her life. Henry, her husband, best friend and beloved companion left the house, five years before, for a six-pack. An innocent bystander at a hold-up, he was shot, murdered. He never returned to Celia. In a sense, Celia never returned to herself either.
Three women's lives converge in the stifling heat of a Texas summer. They have followed remarkably different paths in life, but all three share the commonality of intense emotional pain and loss. Amanda Eyre Ward treats her characters tenderly, with compassion, sensitivity and gentle humor. She also gives the reader an unflinching look at these women, while exploring the sanctity of life, their wavering spirituality, and the events which will impact all three dramatically. Celia's voice is the only one we hear first-hand. The others' stories are told in the omniscient third person. This variation is an effective tool for developing the readers attachments and sympathies, I think. Ms. Ward's prose is luminous. I read her second novel, "How To Be Lost," (also highly recommended!), and was so impressed that I immediately picked up a copy of "Sleep Toward Heaven." I am not disappointed. I think the second novel is clearly better in terms of character development and taut narrative, but this debut effort is also superb. I cannot wait for her next book. Highly recommended.
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