Amanda Eyre Ward is a great author that I discovered this year upon reading How To Be Lost, which I enjoyed. Sleep Toward Heaven is arguably even better.
Ward's debut novel explores the lives of three struggling Texas women while at the same time probing the death penalty issue in a way that is neither overbearing nor preachy. Karen Lowens, after suffering a very unfortunate childhood, comes to know the only love in her life with Ellen, her junkie girlfriend. Karen's love and desperation for Ellen's love in return drive her to unspeakable acts that finally land Karen on death row as penalty for several counts of murder. Franny Wren, a workaholic doctor recently burned by getting too close to a dying patient, returns to Texas upon the death of her beloved uncle, a part-time prison doctor. In doing so, she flees a life and a fiance in New York City that no longer satisfy her to temporarily replace her uncle as doctor in the prison. Celia Mills, young librarian and widow of Karen's final victim, struggles through life without her husband Henry. She attempts to fill the void by writing a letter to Karen on death row in an attempt to make her husband's killer understand just what has been taken from her and then having an affair with a boy-author she meets when she goes to mail the letter.
Added to the main characters are the women Karen lives with on death row. These women, while we never quite understand what drove them to their crimes, are convincing characters each dealing with their incarceration and impending deaths in their own way. Somehow Ward manages to make these characters and their interactions in their small prison both appalling and strikingly ordinary.
Ward's characters are damaged and real. Karen, Franny, and Celia's stories suspensefully intertwine as Karen's August execution date approaches. Ward graces Sleep Toward Heaven with a deeply satisfying ending successfully doing justice to the rest of the story and the characters that readers will come to care about.
Having read two books by Ward, it's obvious to me that Ward's greatest strength, which is very well demonstrated in Sleep Toward Heaven, is her great sense of timing. While developing her characters' current situations, she gives us a steady trickle of their histories that we find ourselves longing for as we become acquainted with them in the present. Her ability to perfectly time the "doses" of this information combined with her skill in knowing when to cut away from one character's story to another's make this novel quite literally unputdownable.