Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sleep Toward Heaven

Can a person truly forgive someone who has stolen the most precious thing in her life, someone who has killed the person around whom her entire future was structured? Celia Mills certainly does not believe that she will ever forgive the woman who shot and killed her husband as he ran an errand for her one hot Texas afternoon.

Sleep Toward Heaven, Amanda Eyre Ward’s debut novel is the story of three very different women who find their lives intersecting under tragically unpredictable circumstances. One of the women, Karen, is a Texas death row inmate who has been convicted of killing several of the men who paid to have sex with her along the Texas highways she worked to support her junkie female lover. Another is Franny Wren, a young New York City doctor who has been so affected by the death of her young cancer patient that she is having second thoughts about her career and her marriage plans. The third is Celia, widow of Karen’s last victim, the only man she killed who was not one of her customers, a man who happened to cross paths with her at precisely the wrong moment.

The state of Texas has a long tradition of executing its murderers, something that longtime residents of the state usually take for granted. It is just a fact of life in Texas that many convicted murderers end up in Huntsville where they pay the ultimate price for their crimes. Ward uses Karen, Franny and Celia to put a human face on that experience by alternating segments in which each of the women draws closer and closer to the date that Karen has with her executioner.

Franny Wren never expected to return to a life in small town Texas, and certainly never expected to become a prison doctor working with the female prisoners on death row. But here she was. Karen finds herself looking forward to the relief that death offers. Her life on death row among the handful of female prisoners awaiting their own executions has become miserable and it is only a question of whether she will be executed before she dies from AIDS. Celia, the only character whose story is told in first person narrative, is working hard to convince her mother and friends that she is putting her life back together despite the fact that she is beginning to question her own sanity.

As the clock ticks down and these three women come together one hot Texas August, they touch each other’s lives in ways that will change them forever. Sleep Toward Heaven never becomes preachy or overly sentimental, even to its unexpected ending. Rather, Amanda Eyre Ward allows each reader to decide about the rightness or wrongness of the death penalty for himself. Personally, I am pro-death penalty and I expected Ward to work harder to change my mind than she did. I found instead that the strength of her work is the way that she made me think about all the issues surrounding the death penalty without beating me over the head with them.

Rated at: 3.5
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