Charles Lambert: Little Monsters

Apologies to anyone who has spotted that some recent posts here have been about books not yet released. I’ve been lucky to pick up advance copies of a few titles, and if – surely we are agreed – a newly acquired book is much more enticing as a potential read than an old book, then a book which is so new it hasn’t even been published yet, must have double enticement, enticement squared. Anyway, I hope any frustration about not being able to buy these titles yet will be outweighed by the interest piqued in treats to come. I have only a couple left anyway, so normal service will be resumed. Plus, if I waited the month or so till publication before writing about them, I’d be scratching my head trying to remember what they were about again.

Little Monsters

Charles Lambert’s Little Monsters is a first novel which is more than just a ‘promising debut’; it breaks through promise and into solid achievement. Admittedly the author is not your traditional debutante, and when a new kid on the block is not a kick in the arse off Paul Torday’s late-starter age, we might expect good things. I was not disappointed. The book rings with an impressive assurance, and the aplomb with which Lambert handles his explicit themes put me in mind of Peter Ho Davies’s The Welsh Girl, one of my favourites of last year. It’s a traditional novel but knotty enough for modern sensibilities; and like Davies’s novel, it takes a girl as its central character and creates an affecting parable of belonging and escape.

Carol opens her story with an attention-grabbing line:

When I was thirteen, my father killed my mother.

and if that seems a touch showy, then be warned that Lambert does at times prefer to depict clearly what the reader might prefer to work out for themselves. Within these limitations, however, the characters are strongly drawn and smoothly defined. Carol goes to stay with her aunt Margot, who appears not to have felt any particular loss, to say the least, with the murder of her sister (“your mother was a whore”). She has a son, Nicholas, who is not much more welcoming than Margot is, and then there is Uncle Joey, who is not aunt Margot’s partner or lover but a Polish refugee called Jozef. They run a pub:

None of us had a home. We lived and ate and slept around the borders of a public space that influenced everything we did; our lives were peripheral to its needs, its hours. It always puzzles me to read about pubs or hotels with a family atmosphere. How do they manage it? What do they know what we didn’t? What we had was the opposite: a family with the atmosphere of a pub.

All this is being recalled in retrospect by Carol: now, fortysomething years later, she has made a life with Jozef, who is twenty years her senior. The frisson this knowledge gives us – what happened there exactly? – adds greatly to the atmosphere of darkness under the surface of the story. In the present day, Carol and Jozef are living in Italy and become involved with an Albanian refugee girl called Kakuna: her sullen violence seems to Carol a cry for help, she remembers her own difficulty in fitting in, and so the parallels between past and present are established.

This neatness and completeness is something which runs through Little Monsters: the title is echoed in several aspects, the themes of flight and family secrets, bullying and belonging, precisely set out on the page. Secondary characters like Carol’s schoolfriend Patricia are well drawn, and there are dramatic endings to both concurrent storylines. Only a last-page revelation by Jozef seemed to upset this, and to leave much more to be said. By then, however, I was satisfied, and looking forward to what Lambert does next. Just don’t wait another 54 years for us to find out, Mr L.


  1. Does that mean this one is not yet available?

    I finished The Act of Roger Murgatroyd and am reading A Mysterious Affair of Style. I can’t say I like these at all. They are written in such an arch manner that they put me off. The character of Evadne is annoying beyond belief and they don’t seem to be spoofs exactly. I don’t know what they are. There are also quite an unbelievable number of mistakes throughout the first book at least. There is a reference to white boards which I am pretty sure they did not have in the thirties. One of the characters answers with “whatever”. I know editing is not what it used to be but for a period book this is inexcusable. The plot construction is excellent and at least in the first book the use of the same device for the murderer was clever. Having read Agatha Christie’s entire output many times I saw that coming from the beginning, however. When I finish the second book I will do a review on my blog. As it stands now I cannot recommend these books.

  2. Yes Candy, Little Monsters will be out in March (in the UK).

    Sorry you didn’t like the Adairs – I don’t think they’re his best work by a long stretch, but I thought you might get more out of them than I did, being a Christie fan (I’ve never read any of her books). Having said that, if it’s the archness that put you off, then Adair may not be the man for you anyway! I do think The Act of Roger Murgatroyd is better than A Mysterious Affair of Style, and I suspect you might come down that way too – look forward to reading your thoughts on your blog.

  3. In Little Monsters, Charles Lambert begins with:

    When I was thirteen, my father killed my mother.

    And in The Almost Moon, Sebold begins with:

    When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.

    Someone at Picador has mummy issues. 😀

    That said, the novel sounds okay. I like the second quote, reversing the family/pub atmosphere. And the comparison to The Welsh Girl has the ears pricking up. Well, if they could do that, they would.

    And to Candy, I’m also sorry to hear you didn’t like the Adairs. Like John, when I read them last month, I thought The Act Of Roger Murgatroyd was the better of the pair. Like John, too, I’ve not read any Christie, although there may be a hidden memory of taking Poirot’s Christmas, or something, from the school library. I enjoyed his A Closed Book, which is told completely in dialogue and an actual page turner. I just read The Dreamers, which I enjoyed enough, but the best I’ve read is Buenas Noches Buenos Aires, which, while being graphic, has some really wonderful, playful prose. Now to find a cheap copy (well, the cheapest available) of the John Self recommended The Death Of The Author

  4. Well I wouldn’t cross the author off based on these two books and I don’t think I dislike them because I am a Christie fan, not to mention a Hitchcock fan. I can’t quite see what he is trying to do here. They are not funny. They just seem like a collection of sentences which show how well informed the author is about Christie’s work, Hitchcock and mid-twentieth England. I get the feeling the author is quite pleased with himself at his turns of phrase which sets my teeth on edge. Anyway that is just me.

  5. Don’t apologize for getting advance copies. It’s fun to have them.

    I used to get them when I worked for the library. No one wanted to read them.

    Then, I would give them away to friends who loved books but had budget problems.

    Where was the story set? It reminds me of the Gathering. Family secrets and time passed.

  6. Hey John,

    You wrote: “if – surely we are agreed – a newly acquired book is much more enticing as a potential read than an old book” — what about newly acquired old books!? For me, they have by far the most allure.

    Like you, I’m lucky to get review copies; indeed, I’m inundated with them. But the real thrill comes when I open a package (normally via and therein lies an old, forgotten or out of print title that my attention has recently been brought too (almost always by having my attention piqued by someone in the blogosphere) — those are the books that I live for!

  7. Well quite, Mark! I admit I’m only now – with our increasing supply of well-informed bloggers – getting to grips with finding out about the out of print stuff that’s worth looking at. Indeed I still often rely on publishers to do it for me, with reissues of ‘modern classics.’

    Isabel – the story is set in England (the past sections) and Italy (the present day stuff). I see what you mean about the family stuff but I think it’s a much more approachable book than The Gathering.

  8. I have this one waiting John, will get to it soon.
    I love to find good out of print reads and of course so do publishers now with quite a few specialising in just that.It feels a bit competitive out there now as to who can unearth the really good, obscure ones first. I’ve been trekking back to the 1930’s in my search for some unusual reads when I get to Australia for my Around the World in 80 Books and have had to buy one from a second-hand book dealer in Victoria as the only available copy world-wide! About £3 for the book, £15 for the postage but the excitement when it arrived was indescribable.Plus you’ll be horrified to know it was the name of the author that tempted me in before I sensed how good the writing might be, all will be revealed soon, I really should get out more I know.

  9. The lure of new books always gets me. All those novels that have been sitting on my shelf for years, but the one bought last week is always the one I reach for first. I think you reviewing in advance of release is great – it gives me longer to look forward to getting a book I like the sound of. And I like the sound of this one – key boxes on my novel desires list were ticked – girl character, belonging, escape, relevant title, atmosphere of darkness. I like the cover too – it allows me to try to imagine her face.

  10. Sorry to be dredging up a review from the past, but I have just finished Little Monsters and cannot resist commenting. I bought the book along with The Scent of Cinnamon following your review of that book — and decided to read the novel first. I found it to be a most enjoyable experience. Lambert does a very good job of developing young Carol’s sense of isolation and her growth inside that isolation. The contrast with her adult life enters slowly and also grows well. I had not read your review before I read Little Monsters — I too found myself comparing it to The Welsh Girl (another book which I enjoyed very much) as I went further into the book. The story angle of the young person who finds herself at odds with the community that surrounds her is very well developed in both books. Neither is a great book but both are very worthwhile books — thank you very much for introducing me to this author. I’ll be getting to Cinnamon soon.

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