Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Matthea Harvey: Of Lamb

We all know the nursery rhyme. Mary had a little lamb. The lamb loved Mary and followed her everywhere, including to school. The children at school want to know why the lamb loves Mary, and the teacher tells them that Mary loves the lamb. In the original nursery rhyme love is simple and reciprocal. The fact that Mary is a girl and lamb is, well, a lamb, has no bearing on their love. Everything between them is perfect and balanced.

When has love ever been like that?

Of Lamb was born when Matthea Harvey decided to make an erasure—a story or poem written with language excised from another text. Without any source material in mind, Harvey picked the first book she could find for three dollars—A Portrait of Charles Lamb by David Cecil. Charles Lamb, a Victorian writer, had a sister Mary, also a writer. In 1776, at the age of 32, Mary Lamb killed her mother and wounded her father with a knife. After spending three years in a mental institution, Mary returned home to the care of her brother Charles. Harvey whited-out most of the text of A Portrait of Charles Lamb and was intrigued that the words “Mary” and “Lamb” appeared on nearly every page. A warped retelling of the nursery rhyme emerged.

In Harvey’s story, when Lamb and Mary meet, they are “alike. Unbalanced. Flat-footed. High-strung.” Mary is “devoted” to Lamb and reads to him. A relationship develops.

To be clear, Lamb and Mary do indeed have sex (they “ardently turned to animal satisfactions. Lamb described London Bridge with his tongue.”). The illustrations, however, remain relatively chaste. (An entire page tauntingly reads, “Who would not be curious to see the pictures?”) Harvey and Porter deliciously play with readers’ expectations. It feels almost wrong to say this about a picture book that is an erasure, and more poem than story, but I had no idea what was going to happen next.

As in all tragic stories, the course of love, true or otherwise, never does run smooth. Of Lamb depicts characters struggling to fit in. Lamb imagines “the story of a lamb made human.” (The illustration depicts a lamb-like man in a Boston Red Sox uniform.) Lamb and Mary discuss children—but after imagining “a dark-haired little girl-lamb” it seems “natural that they should adopt.” Lamb is depressed, despondent, and snaps at Mary if he does not “feel like feeling.” He goes to a madhouse and gradually makes his way back to Mary. But then Mary becomes ill. Lamb and Mary are described as a “pathetic little pair.” It’s heartbreaking to read—both because the relationship is incredibly exaggerated and weird, and also because it is incredibly, familiarly human.

The text and illustrations stand on their own, and excised lines such as “Goodbye to summer / Goodby to autumn / dressed in the regulation yellow / of change” or “He could hardly support his own shadow” read beautifully as lines in their own right. The illustrations too are compelling. Matthea Harvey describes the process of creating this book as “a game of telephone, or an archaeological site, each layer taking something from the layer before and transforming it.” And therefore reviewing the text of the book only goes so far. The illustrations are whimsical—reminiscent of illustrations found in a children’s book (simple line drawings, bright colors).

Combined with the text, the whole book feels unsettled and uneasy, and evokes the same feelings from the readers. Of Lamb is at once brilliant, poignant and weird, and is as hard to categorize as the relationship between Lamb and Mary. Of Lamb is more than an erasure, and more than a retelling, and unlike anything I have ever read.

Matthea Harvey
Of Lamb
McSweeney’s, 2011