In a sharply defined first novel, Amanda Eyre Ward takes us into death row of a women’s prison in Texas. The main issues depicted are not concerns about guilt or innocence. Instead, the focus is on the textures of life for inmates and others associated with what at first seems a dead-end existence. Three women are major points of reference in this novel that’s effectively narrated in the present tense. There’s Karen, a prostitute, murderer and AIDS victim who was unspeakably abused as a child. Sometime after her imprisonment, her drug-fried, once-bright, lesbian partner abandons her. There’s no breakup between the two, just a drifting away of attention. Next is Franny, a prison doctor who’s the niece of a former prison physician who provided for her after her parents were killed when she was a child. The third major character is Celia, the widow of a man Karen killed.
Throughout the novel, points of view shift between the three figures; and the present-tense narrative emphasizes the immediacy of the tale and the sense of uncertainty in the story’s direction. Actions and moods, we keep realizing, can go any number of ways, and appearance is likely to remain at odds with reality. Smartly chosen, this style of narration gives us no fixed past to settle our attention.
A writer currently living in Austin, Ward does not shape her story to argue whether or not capital punishment makes sense. Rather, she gives us vivid, often jarring images of life in and about women’s death row. Because prisoners and their visitors aren’t allowed to touch each other, the prisoners are increasingly abandoned by their friends and families. Even in happier circumstances, of course, feelings of intimacy are often precarious. Intensifying the sense of isolation is the fact that the guards are transferred if they start getting even minorly friendly with the inmates. Essentially, then, the major figures in the novel live at a distance from others. In one way or another, they’re all in alien states. At the same time, there’s a growing openness to others, especially in Franny and Celia; but even then, hesitation and pain often pull one back from a chance at closeness.
For a moment, one might think: What suspense can occur in a tale like this, except for a melodramatic reprieve, which we wouldn’t believe? There’s plenty of suspense, though, in Karen’s personal situation. Will AIDS kill her before she’s executed? Will she break into hysteria? Will the system, as it is asked to do, honor her with a semblance of dignity? Transient sweetness doesn’t happen. At one point, as she’s being taken to the death chamber, one of the guards releases his grip on her just to see if, in her wretchedly weak state, she’ll fall without his support. Of course, she does, and that insensitive gesture signals a malignant dimension in the system. Ironically, however, the author’s intent is not to expose corruption but to show rhythms of life inside and outside the walls. In an odd but disturbingly effective ploy, we’re given a long list of last-meal requests, and the ordinariness of the choices is strangely chilling.
Issues that prison tales often confront are: whether justice has been done; whether members of the underclass have been prejudicially singled out to suffer; whether events are exotic enough to distract the free readers from their ennui. Ward, however, gives us textures of mortality seen personally by a variety of people. That approach ends up being more touching than a screed against sociological irregularities. In several ways, the issue of this novel is not about injustice at all; it’s about individuals beginning to see themselves as figures related, for better or worse, to a system.
No oblique diatribe against questionable justice, Sleep Toward Heaven is a chronicle of bothersome characters who insinuate themselves movingly into our own attention. Even minor characters are presented vividly. Some are obnoxious, some vapid, some pitiful, some loony; and others outside the walls match them. Some, like a TV journalist from Houston, drift pointlessly with what they consider their own slickness; others, like a court-appointed attorney, try to be effective with limited resources and abilities.
Essentially, Amanda Eyre Ward has presented us with a story that’s believable. More importantly, the different perspectives interweave. Nothing is glorified, but the world depicted here is not seen cynically either. Even Celia rises to understand her need to forgive her husband’s murderer. “It’s not that Karen said she was sorry,” she says, “and I don’t think I would have believed her if she had. … Forgiving [her] … had nothing to do with her.” It was “something I had to do for myself.” The novel, though, does not close with an attitude but with a remarkable and surprising set of actions; and the drama that unfolds with those actions is layered, moving, and convincing. In terms of the novel itself, the ending–which I won’t describe here–brings into focus what the characters in their limited perspectives needed but had no way of articulating–namely, a level of imagination capable of lifting one beyond the wretchedness of being locked in a pitifully limited self. As novelist, though, Amanda Eyre Ward has that necessary level of imagination; and that gift–however it was achieved or received–enables her to synthesize the homeliness of the daily with the power of the transcendent.
James Hoggard’s newest book is Patterns of Illusion: Stories & A Novella. He’s the Perkins-Prothro Distinguished Professor of English at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls.