‘Lamb’ by Bonnie Nadzam

Lamb

Fiction – Kindle edition; Other Press; 289 pages; 2011.

Who says newspaper reviews no longer sell books? Last week I read a review of Bonnie Nadzam’s Lamb in The Telegraph and promptly ordered it in ebook format. And like the Telegraph reviewer, I, too, raced through this book, barely stopping to eat or even breath. It’s compulsive and urgent and compelling,  but it is also disconcerting and creepy. I suspect it is going to be one of those stories that stays with me for a long time to come.

One man’s personal crisis

The story is told by a a rather detached omnipresent narrator  — “We’ll say this began just outside of Chicago” — but we only ever get to witness David Lamb’s version of events. David is 54 and is going through some kind of personal crisis: Cathy, his wife, has left him but he has not told anyone, including Linnie, the younger woman at work, with whom he’s been having an affair. Then his aged father dies, leaving him pretty much alone in the world.

It is on the day of his father’s funeral that he meets Tommie, an 11-year-old girl, who tries to bum a cigarette from him while he is standing in a car park. She has been put up to it by her bitchy school friends, who are watching events unfold from a short distance away. David thinks she looks like a “pale little freckled pig with eyelashes” and wonders if the trio might not be playing a joke on him.

He took the girl’s bare arm just above the elbow and she jerked back, as if suddenly awake. Everything quickened. The sky seemed brighter, traffic faster. “Let’s pretend,” he said low, talking fast, already pulling her toward his Ford, “that I’m kidnapping you. I’m going to pull you, just like this—” She dropped the cigarette and tripped over the long ends of the sandals. “And I’m going to walk you to my car,” he said, pulling her along. “You’re not going to scream, but you’re going to look back at them. Okay? So they know you’re afraid.” Inadvertently, the girl did exactly as he said. “Now don’t freak out,” he said. “We’re just scaring your friends. They deserve it, right? I’m not going to hurt you.”

What follows is a deeply troubling narrative in which David and Tommie go on the run to his cabin in the woods. Much of the novel is about their road trip, including overnight stays in hotels, in which David goes to exceptional lengths not to touch his young companion.  But as much as he respects Tommie’s privacy — he steps outside and “counts to sixty twice, very slowly” whenever Tommie has to change her clothing — it’s clear that he is grooming her, by building trust and making her feel special at every opportunity.

Once in the Rockies, holed up in a run-down cabin, they pretend to be uncle and niece in order to thwart an elderly neighbour from discovering the truth.

For much of the story, Tommie seems happy to be in David’s company. But the longer she is away from home, the more her toughened exterior begins to show signs of cracking. The dilemma for the reader is trying to figure out to what extent Tommie comprehends what is going on — how mature is she for her age and does she genuinely feel love for the man who is essentially keeping her captive?

The reader feels complicit

Reading this book is a fascinating exercise in trying to understand David’s motives and actions. He knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he rationalises everything, so that it is difficult not to feel complicit. Most of the story is told in dialogue, and it is his conversations with Tommie that are the most illuminating. While his voice is so needy and wheedling, it’s hard not to pity him.

Strangely for a novel that is about one man’s warped relationship with a young girl, there is no sex here. Nadzam is not interested in writing gratuitous scenes, although it appears that something of a sexual nature does occur between them towards the end of the novel. For the most part David seems intent in simply rescuing Tommie from a life which he believes — rightly or wrongly — is impoverished and poor; it appears he only wants to do good — but that doesn’t necessarily get him off the hook.

In fact, a lot of what happens in this novel is open to interpretation (it would make a terrific book club novel for that reason). This is helped by Nadzam’s restrained narrative, which lends the story a lean quality in which the reader must fill in the gaps.

Ultimately, Lamb — which won the Centre for Fiction First Novel Prize in 2011 — is about exploring truth, trust, innocence, thwarted dreams and coming to terms with growing old. It is perversely sad, deeply unsettling, lovely and grotesque all at the same time.

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22 thoughts on “‘Lamb’ by Bonnie Nadzam

  1. I’ve heard of this book (via Twitter, not via the newspaper!) and I’m intrigued. Your review reminds me that this is a book I want to read.
    From your review I get the idea that it’s a ln some (roundabout) ways similar to David Vann’s Caribou Island. Am I totally wrong?

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  2. Have not read Caribou Island, so dont know if this book is similar or not. But Nadzam does write very eloquently about the wilderness, which I know David Vann does, too, having read his debut novel.

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  3. Thanks for reminding me about ‘Lamb’ with this review, Kim. I remember seeing a couple of reviews online when it came out in the US last year, but it had slipped my mind since. Anyway, I’ve just ordered a copy, so hopefully will read it very soon. The fact it is a quick read appeals greatly at the moment – I seem to have been picking quite a few novels lately that I’ve got very bogged down in (‘Cutting for Stone’!), though having said that I’m currently flying through Alex Miller’s ‘Lovesong’.

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  4. I reckon bad reviews sell books, too, Stu. Goodness knows I’ve bought enough books based on them, if only to see whether the book is as bad as the reviewer claims.

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  5. I started with ‘Journey to the Stone Country’ back in January for your Australian literature month. I reckon that is my favourite one so far (might even be my book of the year). Then I read ‘Conditions of Faith’ which is gorgeous and similar to ‘Lovesong’ in some ways. ‘Autumn Laing’ and ‘Landscape of Farewell’ were both very good too though perhaps not quite as good as the others for me.

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  6. I had never heard of this book before this week but I’ve now seen a flurry of really positive reviews & I really want to read it. Sounds like a sort of modern day Lolita, very sinister. Great review.

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  7. Great review, Kim. This sounds really well written, really subtly done, and I’ll keep an eye out for it – not my usual fare, but since it sounds more like a character study than a gratuitous ‘issue’ book, perhaps I would admire it nonetheless.

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  8. Nice review – as you say, its perfect book club material. One of the few books which is genuinely creepy I think – you almost see David’s point of view but then recoil with disgust. I’d love to have known what happened to both parties beyond the end of the book.
    On the other matter, reviews may not sell books, but they certainly stop people buying them – a few three star reviews on amazon can stop any sales in their tracks. Fortunately I don’t write reviews to sell books!

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  9. I hadn’t heard of it either… I’ve not read Lolita, but yes, it’s probably along similiar lines. It is sinister, but it is strangely moving at the same time. It’s one that really confuses the emotions!

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  10. Thanks for your comment, Simon — I seem to have received more than the customary 6 this week 😉
    It’s definitely not an “issues” book — it’s very literary and thought-provoking and challenges a lot of preconceptions.

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  11. Hi Chad, yep, creepy is the word for it… but it’s a strangely emotional read. It’s like riding a rollercoaster, one minute you’re up, the next you’re down. There were parts where I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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  12. Thanks, Tom. Yes, it’s weird being able to empathise with someone whose actions are so clearly wrong, isn’t it? I felt disgust for him and his actions angered me, but I could also appreciate he was lonely and bereaved and trying to rediscover lost innocence.
    As for three-star reviews not selling books, I’d never thought of it like that. I tend not to read the reviews on Amazon. I took all mine down and deleted my associates account about 5 years ago when I discovered that Amazon kept copyright of your reviews. Plus, I couldn’t stand the sanctimonious, often nasty, comments left under my reviews. I simply didn’t need that kind of stress in my life.

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  13. I have an ARC of this which I have been umming and ahhing about for a while, your review has convinced me to give it a whirl as the blurb made it sound confronting and icky, you have made it sound confronting but important. Thank you.

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  14. Well, I’ve just finished ‘Lamb’, Kim, and I honestly don’t know how I feel about it. It is completely compelling, but seriously disturbing. The writing is great though, especially the dialogue.
    I don’t know that I empathised with David – I can’t say that I ever saw his point of view or felt sorry for him and I think it would have made for an even more chilling read if I had been able to. In that respect I thought the portrayal of Tommie was the more complex (as you say in your review, how much does she understand that what is happening might be wrong?).
    I found the “omnipresent narrator” a bit odd, though it added to the overall atmosphere of the book – all that ‘say this happened’, ‘our guy’ stuff – and then towards the end the narrator talks for a couple of pages in the first person and I wasn’t sure if the narrator was actually David, and if it is, do the events of the book actually happen, or is it some sort of weird fantasy scenario he’s playing in his head?
    It is certainly thought-provoking and one I’m going to be mulling over for a few days yet I should think.

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