Reading Bonnie Nadzam’s debut novel is like watching a train-wreck in slow motion. Not just the final cataclysmic crash but the long series of events and decisions that combine together to create an overwhelming disaster. This is not the first book to focus on the relationship between two people separated by a large age gap, particularly when one is just a child, but this is probably one of the most disturbing and sinister ones I’ve read.
It’s ironic that Tommie only meets David Lamb after she is set up by a group of cruel school friends to approach him. Lamb turns the tables, pretending to kidnap her, hoping to shock her into realising the stupidity of her action and cruelty of her friends. Afterwards, he delivers her safely home. But “he couldn’t get the kid out of his head. He hoped he hadn’t hurt her. He hadn’t exactly been thinking clearly. But he hadn’t meant to hurt her. He was not that kind of man.”
And as their lop-sided relationship develops the reader desperately hopes he was indeed ”not that kind of man.” But what kind of man is he? Middle-aged, clearly comfortably off, his father has just died and there is a troubled past that involves a Cathy. Soon, he and Tommie are close. “They met ten times in the next week, before school and after…. eventually, when it seemed time, he took her for a day.” They banter in a silly, teenage way, sharing jokes, falling out then becoming friends again.
He mentions camping. An ignored inner-city kid, she is captivated. He talks of their own private, idyllic Home Sweet Home dream and says he is going there. Inevitably, she wants to come too. She will play truant. “”You’ve done this before?” ”Once.” He gave her a look. ”OK, twice.” ”So I’m not corrupting you?” ”Nope.” ”You sure?” “Yep.” ”I’m going to trust you on that.” He glanced sideways at her. ”Can I trust you?” ”Yes.” ”Shake on it?” They shook.
So they set out on their adventure heading West from Chicago and Nadzam takes the reader along on the drive with some lush, sensual descriptions of the landscape. There are fleeting moments of optimism but in this dark, psychological thriller, a deeply damaged man gradually sinks further and further into his perverted world, never quite seeming to recognise it for what it is.
This eerie and disturbing book will stay with you long after you have turned the last page and is a stunning first novel. It has to be a strong contender for the Women’s Prize for fiction, formerly the Orange Prize, for which it is currently long-listed.
Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam is published by Random House