Bonnie Nadzam’s “Lamb” is that rarest of literature: a debut novel whose spare, eloquent imagery entices, whose facile dialogue rings absolutely true, whose ideas and emotions endure when we turn the last page.
David Lamb is a middle-aged man whose life is coming off the rails and is desperate to find a better version of himself. He fantasizes that he can achieve this by benevolently anointing an anonymous, less-than-ordinary, eleven-going-on-twelve year-old seemingly lost girl, to share his journey for just a little while so that she can learn from him how to imagine and realize a better future for herself.
What are the facts? David does not abduct “Tommie,” but out of her deep need for paternal love and guidance, makes her a co-conspirator in a trip to his secret sanctuary in the Rocky Mountains. Out of her imagination and unknown life experiences, the author perfectly verbalizes a molester’s or abusive killer’s rationalizations while persuading both child and reader of his own good intentions.
It is not hopeful that he provides Tommie a fictitious name for himself, but if his stated intention to return her home were true, would he not do so in order to avoid being successfully sought later by authorities? So, too, we suspend our disbelief until his careful use of “you” and “I” in conversation with Tommie transmutes into the more presumptuous “we” and the hair stands up on the back of our neck as we fear a black turn of events. I have not been so chilled since reading Meg Tilly’s unexpectedly stunning novel of abuse, “Gemma.”
But if you thought you knew where this was going, you would be wrong, as you will be at almost every turn. (Although we do reach the cabin in the Rockies where “the woodstove snapped and hissed and a thin wind sang across the chimney pipe, racing high, chasing nothing.”) David and Tommie are not the only lambs malleable in the hands of this skillful writer—who adds a whole other layer of meaning by occasionally interjecting that “let’s say” David, or “our guy,” is thinking or doing something.
We are thus left to ponder how much really happens as described, and how much occurs in the protagonist’s imaginative best version of events. Along the way we struggle with questions such as, how does simple need, or neediness, drive love? And is it all right to lie about love to one in order to preserve the love of another? What is the boundary between love and emotional abuse?
Having taken this journey, the ending was absolutely heartbreaking. Almost, because in David Lamb’s seduction of our deepest emotions, we still wish to find some version of hope in it. This is no plot spoiler. Jumping ahead to the passage will do you no good: you will not get there unless you share in the journey. (Martin Northway)
Other Press, 288 pages, $16
Bonnie Nadzam reads from “Lamb” at Women and Children First, 5233 North Clark, (773)769-9299, October 21 at 7:30pm.