Ghost-pale Karen Lowens is a convicted murderer on death row, awaiting execution at a women's prison in Gatestown, Texas. Brassy young Texas librarian Celia Mills is the widow of Karen's last victim. Franny Wren is the kind-hearted physician caring for Karen, who is dying of AIDS. In Sleep Toward Heaven, gifted writer Amanda Eyre Ward intertwines the lives of three women in a poignant tale of benevolence and brutality, whose compelling images resonate long after the final page has been turned.

"Each novel I write is a shadow life, running like a river beside my own," says Ward, an award-winning short-story writer and reporter for the Austin Chronicle in Austin, Texas. In lean, luminous prose, Ward taps into her own chilling experiences visiting one of the state's women's prisons. Her sharply drawn characters ponder life's capital-letter concepts: Guilt, Vengeance, Forgiveness. As Mills says, while driving to witness Lowens' execution, "The fact is that in the abstract, I do believe in mercy. . . . I believe people make mistakes, and that they should be given a chance to atone. But I also feel that something was taken away from me . . . and that I deserve something back."

Although Ward paints a vivid portrait of Lowens' childhood abuse and adult life immersed in a world of prostitution and drugs, her tone is masterfully restrained, impassioned without being preachy, and darkly humorous. When Wren warns a desperately ill Lowens of the dangers of taking too much morphine, the condemned woman responds: "Oh yeah. I might die." Wren battles her own set of demons, including her insistence on a bone marrow treatment for a young cancer patient with no hope for survival. "She could have died in peace," she laments to a stranger at the girl's funeral, "at home, with her family. But I wouldn't let her."

Surging swiftly toward the inevitable, Ward's astonishing debut blends pathos and suspense into the rarest of fictional breeds—a literary page-turner. The haunting tale dazzled actress Sandra Bullock, who purchased it for her production company, Fortis Films. She'll need some powerful leading ladies to join her in filling such spirited roles.

Allison Block is a writer and editor in La Jolla, California.

 

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