Up all night with Sebastian Barry, Reviews of two gems

By dawn this morning I'd finished On Canaan's Side.

You know he deserves it. I know he deserves it. Give the man his Booker (Man Booker, get it? Man Booker Prize?) (I'm very tired).

More thoughts on Barry later.



Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam

Release Date: 9/13/11

Not since Humbert Humbert have I read a book with such a deluded, unreliable narrator as vile as David Lamb. Comparisons to Nabokov's 'Lolita' have, naturally, already been made in other reviews, so it's not necessary I go that route in any length, but it's necessary I mention it.

It's so obvious a resemblance it defies belief it wasn't intentional, whether Nadzam read 'Lolita' or not. Everyone knows the story; it's one of those books it's not necessary to have read in order to be familiar with the subject matter. A middle aged man falls in love with a pre-pubescent little girl, justifying – within his warped mind – it's acceptable to ultimately possess her because their love is so "pure." Grotesque and upsetting to think about, but purely fascinating when it's done right.

And Bonnie Nazdam does it right. Near perfectly, in fact (I don't take comparisons to Nabokov lightly). At no point did I find the characters and situations unbelievable. The story progressed seamlessly, first presenting Lamb as an almost sane man who's merely misguided, slowly unfolding the revelation of his depravity and lack of touch with sanity.

We're not lead to believe there's anything off about David Lamb at the beginning of the book. He is having a relationship with a woman at work, but it's a consensual, adult relationship. Only after he sees a group of young girls hanging out, trying to exude an older woman's sexuality and appearance, do things turn. A seemingly normal scenario turns his head, and from there begins his downfall.

At first Lamb seems to have Tommie's best interests in mind, putting a scare into her by grabbing her when she comes near his truck, knocking her head against the window, then driving her home to illustrate the point though he's a safe stranger, and not every man is. It's a warning, he tells her, though we see by his behavior one bordering on frightening violence.

A relationship slowly develops between them, Tommie skipping school for outings with an attractive older man she gradually learns to trust. Lamb buys her gifts, teases out information from her about her homelife with her mother and stepfather, assuring himself she's a typical latchkey kid without a lot of strict family rules. In short, she's an easy target.

Eventually he mentions taking her away, just for "a few days," returning her to her mother unharmed and wiser, with an advantage over the girls she used to hang out with, convincing her she would have something over on them afterward. The secret knowledge will be something she can hold over their heads until she decides to tell them the story. That will show them she's no one to be kicked around, that she's attractive, interesting and a "woman of the world."

How irresistable for a girl on the cusp of adolescence, especially one who feels inferior to her peers. And how kind he seems, how trustworthy, how his suggestions build upon each other in such a way she feels no threat. His skill lies in his ability to fake innocence while, at the same time, grooming Tommie, lulling her into a sense of security.

It's not clear at first if he knows what he's doing, that he's already formed his plan, or if things build on others, he sees opportunity and takes it. Eventually, after the suggestion they go on a road trip together – like a father and daughter, he suggests -we know he's a frighteningly evil man very aware what he's doing is wrong.

What a riveting read! Yes, the premise is repulsive, and yes David Lamb makes the skin crawl, but what's exemplary is Nazdam's ability to show us just enough about the young girl's (Tommie) feelings and reactions to add complexity, without delving too deeply into her mind to upset the first person point of view. It's a fine line, but the author managed it brilliantly.

This is an impossible to put down, compulsively readable book, not for readers who don't appreciate an unreliable narrator. But for those of us who do it's delicious. It is not without its share of flaws. It does have a rather insular story line without much sense of the danger Lamb faces, but any missteps on the part of the author can be forgiven for having given the reader such a gem as this.


Other reviews:


Publishers Weekly

Blog reviews:

Bibliophile by the Sea



Bonnie Nadzam



 I Married You for Happiness by Lily Tuck

Release date: 9/6/11


Philip and Nina are an average, mostly-happily married couple. Not without their share of difficulties, their decades-old marriage has been strong and healthy. 

The story begins on an average day. Philip, returning from work, decides to lie down while Nina finishes dinner. When she calls him down and receives no answer she climbs the stairs to their bedroom. It's then she finds him dead, lying peacefully on their marriage bed.

Rather than calling paramedics, having his body taken away immediately, she chooses to stay with him throughout the night. Her call to their daughter isn't returned. There is only Nina, left alone with the outer shell of the man who had been her husband.

The time allows her to reminisce over a long-term marriage, considering his sudden death in juxtaposition to their life together. She drinks a bottle of wine, puts on a favorite jacket of his, and takes herself back in time from the day they met. Is what she's doing proper? It's not every day a wife comes upon the dead body of her husband; there are no rules but her own.

It hadn't been perfect. Is any marriage? There had been infidelities and arguments, as well as tender, loving times. Overall, there was familiarity, the dependability of knowing each would be there for the other, that nothing would be experienced alone. They had travelled extensively, had a daughter together. Life was settled and predictable. Once their daughter had grown and left home it was the two of them, living peaceably.

'I Married You for Happiness' explores the extraordinary in the ordinary. It takes events considered unexceptional in the grand scheme of things, examing them in the light of their effect on individuals. The beauty is in the simple prose, the very human emotions, and how agony and ecstasy exist dramatically within a family, though no one else may have the slightest idea what's transpiring. It's the ordinariness of it, the knowledge such things may come swiftly, giving no time to say goodbye, or anything, really, that pulls at the heart. A beautiful book.


Publishers Weekly


Blog Reviews:

Three Guys One Book

Mental Geysers



Lily Tuck


Thank you to NetGalley.com for eGalleys of these two books.