Author: Alissa Nutting
Constable & Robinson RRP $27.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
tam·per 1 (tmpr) v.tam·pered, tam·per·ing, tam·pers v.intr.1. To interfere in a harmful manner: tried to tamper with the decedent’s will; tampering with the timing mechanism of the safe.2. To tinker with rashly or foolishly: Don’t tamper with my feelings.3. To engage in improper or secret dealings, as in an effort to influence.
Although this novel is set in Tampa, I can’t help thinking that the title is meant to suggest the word ‘tamper’. That’s really what this novel is about – an attractive female teacher who tampers with 14 year old boys (she calls it seducing them) and tries to justify it by saying she’s educating them. Tampa, Alissa Nutting’s literary fiction debut is a divisive book that is quite simply, not going to be everyone’s taste. It’s described as a ‘satirical’ examination of desire, but what many may misunderstand is that satirical does not necessarily mean funny; in its simplest sense, satire is used as a form of social criticism, bringing to the fore issues that need discussing.
sat·ire (sa-ˌtī(-ə)r) n.
1. a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn2. trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly
Tampa takes the reader into the mind of Celeste Price, one of the most disturbing and vile literary characters I’ve come across. Celeste is 26, married to a police officer from a wealthy family, drives a red Corvette, and by her own admission, is very attractive. She teaches eighth-grade English not because she has to, but because it provides her with plenty of ‘eye candy’ to feed her obsession for 14-year-old boys. Her desire for boys of this age is even more specific:
‘my ideal partner, I realized, embodied a very specific intersection of traits that would exclude most of the junior high’s male population. Extreme growth spurts or pronounced muscles were immediate grounds for disqualification. They also need to have decent skin, be somewhat thin, and have either the shame or the preternatural discipline to keep a secret.’
Celeste pursues her desire with sociopathic meticulousness and forethought, from the way she grooms herself ahead of her first day (physically and sexually) to her cool assessment of potential lovers. She revels in the knowledge that her male students think she’s ‘hot’ and when sets her sights on her target, pulls out all the stops to lure him in. When she sees Jack, shy, unimposing (but with a mouth that’s ‘devilishly wholesome’), she knows he’s the one, and the calculating games begin: ‘Reaching up to the nape of my neck, I shook out my hair and brought the pencil’s lead tip to my tongue’. Within weeks, Jack is under her spell.
Their affair is heated and dangerous; Jack’s timidity vanishes fast as Celeste draws him into a world of sexual experience beyond his boyish imaginings, with encounters in cars, classrooms and Jack’s house while his single father is not at home. Celeste enjoys the risk factor, but remains aware that exposure would be inconvenient (for her). Inconvenient. There’s no remorse from Celeste about her behaviour – her words make that clear when she talks about people with ‘delusions of morality’ calling the police if they found out, or pretends to play the conscience card when it suits her. Even when the affair is found out (it’s a given that it will be), she remains convinced that she has just done Jack a favour: ‘I’d be the sexual yardstick for his whole life’.
Tampa deals with the issue of predatory behaviour in an unsettling and graphic manner. This is not an erotic book, one designed for escapism with a bit of spice thrown in. Instead it details, with no attempt at euphemism, a succession of sexual encounters that are written to drive home a point, rather than inspire arousal. Some readers will find it difficult – I know at times I did. Being in Celeste’s head space (it’s written from a first-person viewpoint) is uncomfortable – she’s a narcissistic, calculating woman who cares only for her own pleasure. She tries to convince the reader that Jack’s pleasure is important, but it’s abundantly clear that it’s all about her. It’s confronting stuff. Celeste gets off on pushing boundaries – even her classroom discussions about ‘culturally agreed-upon roles’, and ‘sexual impropriety’ skirt dangerously close to reality; what she wants is affirmation that her actions are excusable.
As a book that pushes boundaries, Tampa certainly does that. No matter how disconcerting it is to occupy Celeste’s head space, the book does what it sets out to do – makes people talk. It does make readers question double standards (why are some relationships more scandalous than others?) and it also highlights the extent to which predatory people will go to achieve their ends. As the mother of teenagers, I was horrified, but it also allowed me to talk to my older teenage sons about what they think about the issue from a number of angles. Their responses were interesting.
While I did not enjoy the discomfort I felt while reading Tampa, nor did I like the subject matter or protagonist, I do think it’s a good, albeit very confronting, read. It’s written well, especially in the sense that it evoked strong emotions from me – anger, frustration, disbelief and disgust. I was compelled to read it to the end, if only to see Celeste get her just desserts. Did she? You’ll have to read it to find out. It will polarise readers and I’m interested to see the critical and popular response to the book – did the publisher and author’s risk pay off? Book clubs who don’t mind books that push them a little will find a lot to discuss in here.
Available from bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.
Bookish treat: I have five copies of Tampa to give away (Australian residents only). For a chance to win, head over to my FB page and tell me why you want to read this book. I’ll be drawing the winners on July 24 to coincide with its in-store release.