Lamb (2011) by Bonnie Nadzam
I swore to myself I would write a proper, in-depth, meaningful review of Lamb: something that actually had some meat and substance to it, not one of the one-paragraph rush jobs I've often done when I don't have the time or inclination to get into a proper-write up. Something that would make people sit up, take notice and think, 'wow, I really want to read this book'.
Of course, it hasn't materialised yet because I find it really hard to write about books I love. And I don't know how I can possibly do Lamb justice.
This is a story about David Lamb, a man in his mid-fifties who finds himself at a crossroads of sorts. His father has died; he has split with his wife, but doesn't know if he's made the right decision; he is half-heartedly embroiled in an ill-advised affair with a younger female colleague, who is besotted with him. In the midst of this confusion he meets an eleven-year-old girl, Tommie, who both disgusts him and arouses some kind of paternal instinct when he sees that she is the butt of a joke made by her savvier 'friends'. His interest awakened, Lamb finds himself drawn back to Tommie again and again, and a plan begins to formulate in his mind: he will liberate her from the drudgery of her life, take her on a trip to the country, teach her about nature and the great outdoors.
So this is a story about a seemingly ordinary man in the grip of a mid-life crisis making a strange, rash, confused, risky decision. It is also a story about an extremely manipulative fiftysomething man grooming and then kidnapping a pre-pubescent child and taking her halfway across the American Midwest to a remote, snow-bound cabin.
There have been (and I'm sure there will continue to be) the inevitable comparisons to Lolita, but Lamb is a far more opaque story. The slippery, shifting narrative is like a voice whispering in the reader's ear, inviting them to be complicit in Lamb's actions ('there was nothing wrong with that, was there?'): but crucially, the story is not actually told from his point of view. Tommie is no Lolita, but Lamb is no Humbert Humbert either - he is constantly trying to convince himself that his actions are motivated by a desire to do some good for a neglected child, trying to suppress and then justify his other desires. This obviously doesn't make what happens any less disturbing or uncomfortable, but it encourages complicated reactions from the reader. I found myself in a state of disgust and morbid fascination throughout, and I was so compelled by the story that it was difficult to put the book down, or to stop thinking about it whenever I did.
There are other layers to pick apart here. The contrasts and the similarities between the way Lamb treats Tommie and how he treats Linnie, his 'girlfriend': the manipulation, the patronising, cajoling language. The character names, loaded with meaning: Lamb and Tommie are the obvious ones, but Nadzam gives us, for example, minor male characters called Alison and Clare. The intriguing narration, which is intimate but distant: it gives glimpses, suggests reasons, but never fully answers the questions the plot throws up (does Lamb have a history of child abuse? Are his actions spontaneous, or the result of months, years of careful planning? Is there ever a sexual element to his 'relationship' with Tommie?) And who is telling the story? There is a sense that the narrator's ambiguity is deliberate (I mean deliberate on the part of the narrator rather than the author), and that the aim of the narrative may not be what it seems to be. This is most evident when the narrator speaks directly to the reader.
I could carry on like this for some time. The final thing to be said about this book is that it's wonderfully written. Lyrical, brisk and evocative, Nadzam's prose brings the environment and details of the story to life, to gorgeous effect.
Lamb is a phenomenal debut. Just read this book.
Buy the Kindle edition for £3.21 or the paperback (with the much nicer cover shown above!) for £8.96 at Amazon. A selection of Nadzam's earlier writing is available to read on her website - I will definitely be working my way through this when I have some time to spare!