Lamb – Bonnie Nadzam

David Lamb is 54. His marriage has recently ended; he’s been having an affair with a younger colleague at work; he’s just buried his father.

After the funeral, he stands by a ‘bus-stop bench’ in a parking ‘lot between a liquor barn and a dollar store’ and contemplates ‘the story that was his life even just a summer ago’:

Granite counter-tops, beveled glass gilded from the outside by light at the end of the day; two fingers of gin in a tumbler; newspapers and mail piling up on the island in the kitchen; Cathy in the gold eyeglasses trimming the tapered ends of the French green beans; Elizabeth Draper’s blue necklace of tiny glass beads in his silk-lined pants pocket; Linnie ringing his cell phone; his cuff links flashing every time he lifts his glass; a fax coming in from Wilson; nightly news from the flat-screen in the sunken living room; John Draper wanting him out on the driveway or in the garage for a beer; Cathy’s sister bleary-eyed and wrinkled pulling up in her Volvo: hi, David. All of that, and what was there now to hold him up?

As he stands there, he’s approached by a girl ‘in a lopsided purple tube top and baggy shorts and brass-colored sandals studded with rhinestones…her stomach stuck out like a dirty spotted white sheet. It was grotesque. It was lovely.’ She has been dared by her friends to ask him for a cigarette. He gives her one and in exchange, decides to play a trick on her friends. Grabbing the girl by the arm, he pushes her into his car, making it look as though he is kidnapping her.

From this early point, Nadzam shows us the state of David Lamb’s psyche and the games he likes to play. He checks that the girl’s unhurt and tells her he’s taking her home but then:

He yelled at her like he thought a father would have done.
“I could be taking you somewhere to kill you. You know that?”
… She was terrified. Well, good. It was true what he’d said. He could be taking her to kill her. He could do anything he wanted.

From a reader’s point of view he is also terrifying. Does he want to kill her? Abuse her? Is he just lonely and therefore, misguided in his choice of company? Does he want to be a father figure to her?

The following day, Lamb returns to the bus stop at the same time as the day before. Tommie (the girl) appears, upset because her friends didn’t care that she’d been taken away by an older stranger. Lamb lies about his name – he tells her it’s Gary – and then takes her for lunch. We’re told briefly that ‘they meet ten times in the next week’ and then Lamb suggests a trip to his cabin in Nebraska. It’s this trip that makes up the majority of the book.

And then, just as they’re preparing to leave, we learn that Tommie is 11.

He inhaled. Christ. He’d taken her for thirteen at least. Eleven. That was closer to five years old than it was to eighteen.

It doesn’t stop him though, although he does tell Tommie that she needs to think carefully about whether she wants to go on the trip and gives her opportunity to leave. Or so it seems. There are many moments in the book where it appears that David is being reasonable, that he is just protecting her from a home and school life that might not be that great and there are also many moments where it’s apparent that he lusts after her, where he’s predatory and downright scary.

Nadzam plays the reader well here. By telling the tale from Lamb’s point of view, we’re made to feel as though we might understand him, that he’s a character who should deserve our sympathy and then that’s snatched from us by a word or a deed.  What’s also very well done is the restraint that Nadzam shows as a writer. She gives us glimpses of Lamb’s behaviour but there are several points where you’re left to flesh out what’s just happened, creating a more disturbing picture that the one that could’ve been spelled out to us and keeping us reading a story that otherwise might have been too much for most readers to stomach.

This is a taut, gripping book that well deserves its place on the Women’s Fiction Prize longlist.