Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Lying Awake by Mark Salzman

To me the best, most memorable books are those about a character forced to make a choice. I don’t mean a simple choice like good vs. evil, or a clear cut black and white dilemma. No, I’m talking about the between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place, the damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t big themed, life or death, high stakes consequences kind of choice.

The setting of Lying Awake is a Carmelite monastery located outside present-day Los Angeles, and it's a mysterious cloistered world. Home to Sister John of the Cross, it’s the peaceful sanctuary from a troubled life, the sacred place where she’s written several best-selling inspirational books, books whose income provide support for the aging monastery.

Of all the nuns, Sister John alone experiences religious visions of such dazzling power and insight that she is viewed as a spiritual master, even by her superiors. But the sister’s visions are accompanied by powerful headaches, and when a doctor reveals that they may be dangerous, she faces a devastating choice. Are her spiritual gifts, her intimate connection to God, and her ability to write luminous books on the subject, symptoms of illness – temporal lobe epilepsy - rather than grace, gifts from God? Will a "cure" – a life-risking surgery - mean the end of her spiritual visions and her talent? Will her soul revert back to one that is “dry and searching?” Will the loss of income from her books threaten the survival of the monastery, crowded in by urban sprawl? Will Sister John’s progressing illness excessively burden the other sisters with her care?

Like all great novels, I easily put myself in the shoes of this character, and my emotional involvement with the book was heightened all the more so because as a writer, I kept asking myself: What would I do? Wondering if the character would chose as I would is what kept me turning the pages. With spare prose, and astonishing metaphors, there’s not a word out of place or a single mis-step by Salzman in this slim novel. And those are the reasons why this book was the best (modern) book I read in 2007.

To read more about Mark Salzman and the Lying Awake writing process check out this Salon interview: