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Lamb, By Bonnie Nadzam

This daring, disturbing first novel imagines the friendship of a child and an older man

Of late, intimate encounters between mature men and under-age girls have been much in the news. This debut novel by a young US author flirts with the possibility that such relationships might not always have dire consequences. It's a contentious line to take, but consider Tommie and David Lamb. Tommie is 11 years old, Lamb 54.

Tommie is dared by her friends to cadge a cigarette from Lamb as he loiters outside her Chicago apartment block. Lamb has just been to his father's funeral, his marriage has collapsed and he's in trouble over an affair with a colleague. Nevertheless, he decides to mentor Tommie, to rescue her from what he judges to be her monochrome life. He will treat her to a trip out West that she will always remember.

Tommie's appearance is described in a fashion that conveys her childish appeal, but also insinuates the possibility of a more disturbing attraction: "The shorts hung around her pelvic bones and her stomach stuck out like a dirty spotted white sheet. It was grotesque. It was lovely." Lamb buys Tommie expensive gifts and has a rhetorical way of expressing himself which also has - in the way of rhetoric - much potential for dissimulation.

During the road trip, Bonnie Nadzam's ability to conjure natural settings, especially flora, becomes prominent ("Soft gaping mouths of beardtongue, and mountain lover, and buckbush and drowsy purple heads of virgin's bower"). However, Nadzam's abilities go well beyond evocative description; she involves the reader in her narrative to a degree which becomes unsettling. If Lamb is manipulating Tommie in ways that go against her best interests, Nadzam manipulates us into vicarious collaboration with Lamb. While his actions are patently reprehensible, it becomes clear to Tommie - and us - that Lamb's loneliness and distress are so immense that it is hard to think of him as evil.

Nadzam is harking back to the canonical work of this incendiary genre, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. If David Lamb and Nabokov's anti-hero Humbert Humbert are both over-blessed with verbal felicity, there are diverting points of difference. Humbert is a wretch, a sophisticated satyr aware of the black comedy of his dark compulsion, while Lamb is upright and innocent, laid low by his debilitating neediness. It would be unreasonable to expect Nadzam to match Nabokov's shimmering brilliance, but even so this is fiction of striking distinction.