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.