January 31, 2008

Sleep Toward Heaven ***

*** Sleep Toward Heaven, Amanda Eyre Ward, 2003

I don't normally read Oprah books. I don't normally read books by people who are still alive. In fact, for me to read a book that was actually published in this century is unusual. So, why did I read Sleep Toward Heaven? The answer is simple and probably pathetic, but I can live with that. It's a Texas book - set in Texas, written in Texas by an Austinite, won the Writers League of Texas Violet Crown Award.

For all of you bottom-line types, here's the lowdown bird's eye on this caper: This is a good book. Very well written. Definitely worth reading. Get a copy.

What's more, this is a first novel. I'd be very pleased to produce a novel like this one at any point. I'd be insufferably vain if I had done it the first time out.

As a writer, I was interested to see how she put the book together. It's about three women:

  • Karen, a death row inmate
  • Celia, the wife of a man Karen killed
  • Fanny, a doctor and the niece and adopted daughter of the doctor who works in the prison where Karen is incarcerated
The narrative rotates between the perspectives of these three women, which is not unusual, but in addition, the voice and person changes for each character's chapters:
  • Karen: third person, present tense
  • Celia: first person, past tense
  • Fanny: third person, past tense

As a novelist, I found it fascinating to consider how these choices influence the tone and voice. Present tense is not used very often in novels. By using it for the death row inmate's chapters, Ward achieved a sense of immediacy that reinforced the idea that Karen had little time left. But the choice of third person leaves a sense of detachment, an odd contrast to the immediacy of the present tense, but an effective one, since it implies the detachment Karen must employ to survive in her environment.

The first person perspective of Celia's chapters gives a sense of intimacy. It drew me into the world of the woman who is trying to figure out how to survive after her husband was gunned down while going for beer after mowing the lawn.

And the third person, perspective of Fanny's chapters gives some distance from a doctor who can't seem to make her personal relationships work after losing a patient she had become emotionally invested in.

It just worked, all the way around, which goes to show how important the choice of tense and person is when crafting a story.

There were many other things Ward did particularly well, including avoiding sentimentality (which must be very difficult in a novel with so many tragic stories), avoiding preachiness (which is probably equally as difficult when dealing with a subject like the death penalty), and avoiding stereotypes. These may seem like negatives, but the result is very positive. They are large, gaping potholes that confront every serious writer and avoiding them is not a simple task.

There was one thing that puzzled me. To my knowledge, Ward used real place names for everything except Gatesville, which she calls Gatestown in the book, even though it is located outside of Waco, exactly where Gatesville is. Don't know why, but I bet it's an interesting story.

So, kudos to Ward for an excellent job and kudos to you if you grab a copy and read it. You won't regret it.

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