Early on in Lamb, the striking and disturbing first novel by Bonnie Nadzam, a fifty-four-year-old man abducts a girl from a Chicago parking lot. Tommie is eleven years old, the outcast in a group of mean girls who goad her into asking the handsome man in the fancy black suit for a cigarette. Tommie does, and David Lamb, fresh from his father’s funeral, gives her one. Within minutes, he’s instructing her how to hold the cigarette as he lights it, where to look and how to feel. Lamb suggests that he pretend to kidnap Tommie in order to teach her friends a lesson, and then does just that. Tommie fights as Lamb forces her into his car and, as he drives away — drives her home, if fact — she begs him to set her free.
That wasn’t kidnapping. It had been a favor, right? A lesson. He hadn’t kidnapped anyone. She was back in her apartment, having dinner with her parents, her girlfriends perhaps chastened of whoring each other out for laughs in parking lots. It wasn’t kidnapping when the kid ended up safely delivered home in better shape than she left in the morning. It was like he found a loose bolt out there in the world and had carefully turned it back into place. It was fine.
Within days, both Lamb and Tommie return to the scene of the kind-of, sort-of crime. He takes the lonely latchkey child for a ride, buys her lunch, gives her various treasures culled from his late father’s house. He seduces her with his attention, even as Nadzam, with her fine prose, seduces us.
By the time Lamb, whose wife has recently kicked him out of the house, has finessed his first meeting with Tommie into a furtive relationship, you’ve seen him lie to everyone in his life about, seemingly, anything. Yet Nadzam’s writing is so exceptional, and her pairing of Lamb and Tommie so terrifying, you cannot and dare not look away.
Soon, Lamb plants the idea of a trip to his cabin in the Rockies. The girl agrees, and after spending a chaste night together in a local motel, the pair hit the road. Lamb has told so many lies by this time that, when they finally arrive, you’re as surprised as Tommie that the cabin actually exists.
In the new quiet, engine off, they could hear the rush of the river. A magpie sat on the rusted weather vane and blinked. No other houses in sight. Grass and a blue sawtooth horizon and trees and somewhere out behind those trees, nothing and nothing and nothing and nothing. Lamb opened the glove compartment and took out a small ring of keys.
“Just like you imagined?”
“But” — she was whispering — “I thought we were pretending.”
Lamb and Tommie build campfires and cook outdoors. They hike and bathe and revel in the magnificent wilderness. Lamb unravels, has crying jags, talks nonstop to Tommie in a series of questions that force the girl to think about things and make choices she is far too young to face. By the time Tommie’s journey with Lamb comes to an end, she’s his emotional captive. And so are we, lured by both the gorgeous and grotesque in Nadzam’s unsettling vision.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article referred inaccurately to the location of the cabin. We apologize for the error.