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Sunday, 8 December 2013

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam

A few weeks back I found myself listening to The Readers podcast with interest as they discussed the relative merits of reading confronting books rather than more comforting choices. It gave me a lot to consider as I am not averse to picking up novels with grim or controversial subject matter that others might shy away from. I think it is something to do with curiosity and a desire to try and understand how the mind works and why people behave the way they do. I find it interesting to read reviews that say things like "this book was accomplished, it was thought-provoking, but I cannot say I enjoyed it". Is it possible to enjoy passing time with a book if the plot is about a topic that makes you uneasy in real life?

All this made me think of this excellent book I read a few months ago that tackles the horrible subject of child abduction. This one came to my attention when it was longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction earlier this year.
You might think David Lamb is a man who should have little to complain about, but a certain middle-aged dissatisfaction is creeping over him. He has a great job, but has lost all his motivation to succeed at it. His marriage is in tatters and his father has recently passed away. He is involved in a lacklustre affair with a beautiful younger woman who is devoted to him, stringing her along just because he can. Just as he is approaching crisis point, a chance encounter with eleven-year-old Tommie gives Lamb a new purpose in his life; to take this vulnerable, awkward girl under his wing and treat her to a better way of life. And Tommie herself jumps at the chance to escape her bullies and run away from her mundane existence at home.

Bonnie Nadzam has written a really powerful character study in David Lamb. Many comparisons have been made between this book and Nabokov's Lolita, but other than the basic plotline I didn't find them to be all that similar. Lamb lacks the overtly sexual tones present in its predecessor, which makes for a more ambiguous read. I was often unsure to what extent he truly believed he was doing the right thing by Tommie, even when it was startlingly clear to the reader that his actions were deplorable. It is both fascinating and chilling to watch the situation snowball out of control as Lamb gets a buzz from his power and manipulation. A strong sense of foreboding builds as events progress, and I had absolutely no idea how things were going to end for Lamb and Tommie.

As a reader I am usually drawn to vivid characterisation and tight plot first, and language and prose second. But I cannot stress enough how beautiful Nadzam's writing is. I was seriously impressed by her lyrical turns of phrase. The book is peppered with descriptive passages that are absolutely gorgeous, drawing a lush picture of the isolated countryside around Lamb's cabin. It is a really accomplished novel, and even more so considering this is her debut.

I think this is a perfect example of how books can be 'confronting' in subject matter but at the same time be enjoyable to read, thanks to the lovely way it is written. How do you feel about reading 'confronting' books? Do you have any to recommend to me?

I was grateful to receive a copy this book for review from Netgalley via Random House UK.


  1. This does sound very interesting and I had never heard of it. May not add it to my stacks of books anytime soon, but thanks for this review and shedding some light on this book for me.

  2. I remember thinking when the longlist came out that I really wanted to try this one, but I never got around to it. Thanks for the reminder!
    Have you read Tampa by Alissa Nutting? It's definitely a confronting book.

    1. No, I haven't read Tampa, but I have considered it and thought about it while I was writing this review. I hear it's pretty shocking, though, and I'm not easily shocked! I don't know if it's something I'd enjoy! Did you think it was good?

  3. I hadn't heard of this, it sounds really thought provoking, thanks for reviewing.

    Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

  4. This was quite an interesting book, wasn't it? I found it a bit disturbing, so I didn't enjoy it very much. But it certainly made me think (as it did you!). If you didn't read my post on it, it's here: http://rachelreadingnthinking.blogspot.com/2013/03/lamb-by-bonnie-nadzam.html

    I'm not sure if I can think of any similar "confronting" books off the top of my head, but if I do think of one I'll drop back and tell you. :)

  5. hi marie, i found the book today in the bookstore by chance, i read it completely right away on the spot. i think as adebut of a yojng writer, it is very brave to touch this subject and describe courage and free of any prejudies. the weakness in my eyes is that the stories is almost entirely told by lambs voice. tommie are rarely given a sentences longer than 5 words, so she is mainly there to confirm lambs statements. so lambs wife and his secret lover, although appearing only on a few pages, have more chances to present their own character than tommie, who is the in fact the person around which the entire "plot" is build.
    i compared it with woody allens movie "whatever works", about an accidental encounter between a man and young woman the same age difference as in bonnie nazams novel. but in w.allens movie, the young and naive girl quickly develops her own, very authentic and witty character, sufficient to challenge the old professors sarcastic view of life.
    in comparison to the dialogue of equally strong personalities by boris jelnikoff and melody, which drives forward the movie, nazams novel is mainly mr. lambs monologue.
    greetings michael /munich