During his first airplane flight, 12-year-old Owen Kane's imagination sprouts wings. His reaction is not exactly uncommon, but he makes it peculiarly his own. "Makes you feel like a bird," he says. "A vulture."
Owen is a premature adult -- jolted into that status by a penny-cadging life of grinding poverty, casual violence, petty theft and repeated flight from the wretched home and school where he was always an outsider. As Bernard Mac Laverty's intense, rich-texured first novel begins, Owen is the unwilling resident of a borstal, an Irish home for boys that is run by a religious order but is essentially no different from a reform school. Brother Benedict, who is its director, analyzes it without illusions:
"What we run here is a school for the sons of the Idle Poor. We teach them to conform, how to make their beds, how to hold a knife and fork, and the three Rs. We shoehorn them back into society at an age when, if they commit another offense, they go to the grown-up prison. If they do not conform, we thrash them. We teach them a little of God and a lot of fear. It's a combination that seems to work."
Benedict (whom the boys call "Benny") is a stern disciplinarian, if not particularly accurate. Every crime, real or imagined, is punished. It matters little whether the party receiving the punishment is guilty, as long as the accounts are balanced.
Brother Benedict revels in arbitrary power. At one point, finding bird tracks on the borstal grounds, he summons a boy whose interest in birds has earned him the nickname "Bird Man of Alcatraz."
"They're sparrow tracks, Brother," the boy tells him, but Benedict is after power, not knowledge:
"'Mmmmm.' Brother Benedict rubbed his chin. 'I'm not an expert in these matters, O'Halloran, but I would say . . . mmmm . . . they were eagle tracks.'
"The boy stared at them. Michael watched.
"'No, Brother, they couldn't be eagle tracks. They're too small and anyway . . .' the boy looked to Michael for help.
"'Are you contradicting me, O'Halloran?' The voice as loud and rising in mock anger.
"'Good. Now tell Brother Sebastian what they are.'
"'They are eagle tracks,' said the boy quietly."
Since he has been old enough to run, Owen has been running away -- but seldom for long; society pays him little attention except to keep him "in his place," but it does that most efficiently. Another kind of flight for him is epileptic fugue. Whatever it may look like to an outsider, Owen thinks "it's a nice feeling. Everything is right. Everything's in its right place . . . it's the right color, the right smell . . . It's beautiful."
"Lamb" is the story of Owen's final flight, aided by a brother from the school who has despaired of being able to save all the boys but hopes that he can help at least one. The escape is an ambiguous success -- ultimately an escape into death. Brother Sebastian, whose family name is Michael Lamb, is the opposite of Owen -- a grown man who has retained something childlike in his personality. Michael and Owen make a fit pair -- adult Don Quixote and adolescent Sancho Panza -- for a quixotic expedition into the world outside, which turns out to be no more livable than the borstal.
The image of the vulture is one of the final metaphors in a series that is woven through the book, metaphors that provide the texture of a poem beneath the structure of a novel. Birds and other flying things swarm through its pages: caged birds in a London zoo, standing around as aimlessly as boys in a borstal; seagulls, beautiful and predadory; Daedalus and Icarus in a book that Michael uses to test Owen's reading ability; dead flies on a hotel windowsill; a model airplane that they start to build and never finish. An image haunts Michael from a sermon heard in his youth: "Lucifer on useless wings plummeting into the sea of Hell for all eternity."
A central image in a book occurs in Michael's memory of a boyhood fishing expedition with his father. The father has made a long cast, and a seagull swoops down and swallows the baited hook in midair. It is trapped at the end of the fishing line, "pulled round in a wide arc above their heads."
"'I can't leave it in that state,' said his father and began to reel the bird in. It made the most awful squawking, like the shearing of metal. It jinked and twisted and changed direction so that his father had to keep turning on the pier to keep from getting his line tangled. . . . He brought the bird down in a flurry of gray and white. Michael was amazed at the size of it and its large yellow beak open like a pair of scissors with the fishing line disappearing into it. His father struck it hard on the back of the head with a piece of wood and it cowped forward, its wings outspread, like a broken W. He struck it again and again until it was dead."
A seagull with a fishhook in its throat, held back from flying and pulled toward death: The image precisely fits Owen and Michael, who has chosen to share Owen's destiny. When Michael asks Owen what he would want if he were granted three wishes, the first wish is "to fly." His flight is brief, thwarted and violent in its ending, but Mac Laverty makes of it a novel of real substance and power.