Saturday 22 June 2013

A rare kind of friendship

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam (Hutchinson 2012)

There seems to be a mini-genre developing, of authors who take a current news story and offer us a literary retelling of the phenomenon: take Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk about Kevin; or Emma Donoghue, Room. And now, very topically, Bonnie Nadzam with Lamb.

The morbid focus of Lamb is child abduction; it’s constantly thrust upon us in the news, and here is the commentary of a highly credible perpetrator, spelled out to us in all its compelling detail. We are inside David Lamb’s head, hearing how it all makes sense to him; he persuades himself, he thinks he’s persuading us, that it’s all for the 11-year-old victim’s good: he’s rescuing her from a dire reality in a tenement block, he’s removing her from a potentially abusive stepfather, he’s taking her up into the clear mountain air, he’s showing her a better world. And theirs is a rare kind of friendship, isn’t it? A sympathy that transcends the generations, and which the outside world will never understand.

What this narration achieves is to bridge the gap between the ghastly facts we read in the news and the internal mind of the perpetrator. The author has brilliantly imagined all the steps of self-justification; after all, how could anyone steel themselves to do such things? But here it all is, persuasive step after persuasive step, justifying his motives to himself, justifying them to the gap-toothed child, justifying them to his rapt reading audience. Then just a few times the author cleverly steps outside the flow to remind us we’re only watching from the wings; she refers to ‘our man’ as from the observers’ benches, which affords us welcome relief, to know we’re still safely outside this dreaded rollercoaster, still observing, not yet implicated in what is surely the inevitable denouement.

But does the final pounce ever happen? We’re waiting for it, it’s kind of happening every step of the way, surely now, oh no it must happen on the next page. It doesn’t need to happen, because we know in reality it would, so we invent the detail of it for ourselves…

The English edition of this Chicago psychological thriller was selected for the longlist of 2013’s Women’s Prize for Fiction; deservedly so, as once you’ve picked it up you won’t put it down till you’ve completed the horrifyingly readable roundtrip. 


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