Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Sleep Toward Heaven by Amanda Eyre Ward

Reviewed by Arlene W.

…”I wrote a letter to the woman who murdered my husband…I just told
her how angry I was…I told her how Henry used to—“ I said and felt
something hot in my throat. “How he used to pretend to talk to the dog
and tell her to make us coffee and bring it to use in bed.” I never
heard a post office so quiet. Instead of crying, I turned and left.
The boy… ran after me…he grabbed my arm. “Could I—do you want some
coffee?” I opened my mouth but nothing came out. He took me in his
arms and I cried.
Sleep Toward Heaven is a small book (just under 300 pages) working
with the ponderous issues of murder and capital punishment. Tragedy,
loss and ostracism prevail and those themes, coupled with simple,
almost joyless language make for a somber, sorrowful though
emotionally moving story.

Set in the death penalty capital of the U.S., Texas, near Austin, the
tale opens on Death Row where we’re introduced to Karen, an inmate
whose execution is weeks away. Karen’s “row” mates are among the most
colorful and well-developed of the peripheral characters Ward has
created. In fact, the book is replete with in-depth, memorable
characters. Karen is a murderer with the unfortunate but common
history of life-long abuse. Ward, like so many good writers, manages
to make her sympathetic if not likeable. For me, Karen was the
character who vied for my attention.

The other major players, both women, are linked to and eventually
connect with Karen toward the last part of the book. There is Celia,
wife of a man murdered by Karen and Franny who becomes Karen’s prison
physician. Both are brought into the story on the heels of Karen’s
introduction. Ward makes us privy to the vibrancy and happiness of
Celia’s life before her loss. Following it, her sadness and isolation
are richly drawn. Franny’s life, in contrast, began sadly, took a turn
for the good, then went flat primarily at her behest. These histories
are revealed in satisfyingly small chunks divvied out in small
chapters. In this manner, Ward retains each woman’s presence and
heightens the reader’s anticipation for more of the interesting
details she’s given the women’s lives.

There are two aspects of this book that made it stand out for me. One
is Ward’s use of straightforward, plain story-telling language that
belies the depths of the tale. This simplicity camouflaging complexity
appealed to me and provided a pleasurable jarring affect. The other
aspect is the strength of her character development. So well-drawn
were these women that they’d slip into my thoughts at night as I fell
asleep. In my estimation, that kind of powerful writing is
recommendation for reading this novel.

As noted at the start of this review, the peripheral characters in
each woman’s life are especially good. Franny’s future mother-in-law
is outstanding. Celia’s in-laws are maddening but understandable (and
her dog Priscilla is a scene-stealer). But it’s Karen’s fellow
prisoners who are really weighted. Each one of them could be the
protagonist in a stand-alone book. Maybe Ward could be persuaded to do
just that. Sleep Toward Heaven (a line from a poem by William
Stafford) is a good, solid, enjoyable read right up to the very end.

Rating: 8.5


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