At a cultural moment when so many action-inflected books, movies and television shows feature an ass-kicking woman — Mad Max's Imperator Furiosa, "The Walking Dead's" Michonne, "The Hunger Games'" Katniss Everdeen, and, in Emily St. John Mandel's book "Station Eleven," Kirsten Raymonde — it is striking to read a novel whose female protagonist more or less quietly endures her way through the serious challenges, mental and physical, that beset her.
Anna, the hero of Lydia Millet's excellent new novel, "Sweet Lamb of Heaven," is about as far from settling things with pistols or katanas as, well, the vast majority of us. Nevertheless, we have a real thriller on our hands.
While the novel escorts her up to the edge of her limits, "Sweet Lamb of Heaven" isn't some "Coward of the County"-esque exercise in showing how the slow fuse still finds its way to the powder keg. Instead, Millet is working a fertile and often frightening stoic middle ground.
The bones of the premise are straightforward: Anna, a young woman who has married badly, leaves her neglectful, adulterous husband, Ned, behind in Alaska. She takes with her their young child, to whom he has never shown the slightest interest, and he barely seems to notice they have left. This might have been the end of it, one tale of minor misery among a million others, except for two things: One is that for a time after the birth of her daughter, Anna hears voices. Or rather she hears a voice, an unpredictable stream of words and phrases, that neither modern medical diagnostics nor the vagaries of haunting do much to shed clear light on: She might be crazy, she might be possessed, she isn't sure. The second is that Ned decides to run for office and wants his family back for public appearances. Meaning, because Anna doesn't want to come back and because Ned is a self-serving sociopath, the hunt is on.
It's a strange pursuit, as informed at first by stasis — Anna, who narrates, doesn't yet know that just keeping her head down won't cut the mustard with her obsessed former mate — as anything else. Anna's experience with the voice leads her to wash up on the shores of a shabby seaside motel in Maine. There she and her daughter, Lena, find friendship and temporary refuge.
Millet is well known for writing idea-rich books, so perhaps it is no surprise that even if Anna isn't a resourceful fugitive, she thinks a lot and interestingly. Here she is musing, with characteristic eloquence and prescience, on the growing warmth she feels for her fellow denizens of the Wind and Pines: "It was one of those soft sinkholes of time when separate elements coalesce — we were a blur of sympathy, the air between us pockets of space in one great body, one saltwater being, unplumbed depths where the ancestors came from, primeval well of genes… the feeling stretched like generosity, the gift of oneness."
If Anna were just another middle-class escapee on a spiritual quest, that might come off as handsome but a little hokey. But Anna's lucubrations, offered between games with her daughter and chats with her neighbors, are part of a higher-stakes game being played by Millet, one that will ultimately, unabashedly touch on time, beauty, horror, God, demons and the very nature of being. By novel's end, having gazed all along through the cracking lens of Anna's apparent ordinariness, the stakes have been raised through the roof.
Millet isn't poaching on the ornament of genre to push a philosophical agenda: Ned's physical and mental pursuit of Anna grows in intensity over the course of "Sweet Lamb of Heaven." Ned is a world-class manipulative creep, a havoc-wreaking political animal. He plays hard, and he plays dirty, and it is difficult, especially when he has started forcing Anna and Lena into staged photo ops, not to think of the soul-savaging rhetoric on display during the current U.S. election cycle. As Anna puts it: "But Ned's monotony of empty assertions in the service of self-promotion, self-replication and mastery for its own sake, his reach that extended past the boundaries of even the body — that was a weapon without end."
Anna has kept a ribbon that reads "Participant" rather than the blue ribbon of a winner on the corkboard of her childhood bedroom for 20 years, and it is not for nothing that there are considerable references to sheep as well as lambs throughout the novel. Whether the meek are going to inherit the earth here, there is strength in numbers.
In that context, it makes sense that when Anna does, at one crucial juncture, act with intent to do bodily harm, it is her friends from the Wind and Pines who step in and help her see the job to its end. This doesn't mean that Anna doesn't dream, like many of us, of being other than who she is, and her frustrated reflections on this desire ring true: "Why does strength hold itself so stubbornly away, why can't it be that we can summon it out of feeling or impulse, out of just wanting to?"
Anna will never, at least not alone, be able to battle her way out of her problems, but in the face of the world's apparent mastery, she can think and feel her way toward something like salvation. And it is in considering this that we begin to grasp the deeper implications of Millet's choice to keep her protagonist from picking up a pistol or tossing a grenade. Anna's answer — aided by visits to various Internet sites, smart counsel and sessions with some surprisingly effective self-hypnosis tapes — to the "weapon without end" lies in steadily growing self-awareness, well-placed trust in others and attention to the unsettling power of language.
"True language is the deep magic. As old as time. God of the hills and water. God of the sun and trees." Anna is told this in a dream (or is it a vision?) but wisely doesn't let it slip away when she wakes. The lucky readers of Millet's powerful novel will likely hold onto it too.
Hunt is the author, most recently, of the novel "Neverhome."
"Sweet Lamb of Heaven"
by Lydia Millet
W.W. Norton & Co.: 256 pp, $25.95