Tampa (4 July 2013) by Alissa Nutting
This is definitely not going to be a book for everyone, and it's bound to be controversial, whatever that means these days. However, I knew I'd want to read it from the first time I heard about it. That may make me sound a bit strange when you consider that the book is about a woman who has an all-consuming sexual obsession for teenage boys... But it got a good review from Karen, Queen of Goodreads, and it was thanks to her reviews that I discovered and loved A.M. Homes' The End of Alice, a novel with similarly controversial subject matter which happens to be completely brilliant. The fantastic cover of the UK edition (which I'm kind of surprised they got away with - but then, the cover is nothing compared to the content, I suppose) cemented my certainty that I had to read this.
Celeste Price is a beautiful, wealthy woman in her mid-twenties. Married to handsome Ford, a police officer from a rich family, she appears to have everything in the eyes of the outside world. Indeed, one might be tempted to wonder why she has bothered to train as a schoolteacher when she clearly has no need to work. The answer lies in her proclivity for schoolboys, specifically fourteen-year-olds. Despite living an outwardly and happy normal life, she is wholly devoted to pursuing this obsession, although she mostly appears to live in a dreamworld and gives little thought to her long-term future: she is determined that teaching will provide her with a stream of suitable 'lovers', but appears to devote little energy to actually teaching her students anything whatsoever. This, then, is a portrait of an insatiably sexual and avaricious woman, with the plot hanging on the chain of events that unfolds when Celeste starts to put her plan into action, targeting a virginal student named Jack.
I am not a stranger to fiction with controversial themes - I loved The End of Alice, American Psycho, Lolita, Lamb and Notes on a Scandal (all but one of which, of course, have notable similarities to this in terms of why they're controversial) - but there were times when Tampa tested my resolve. For one thing, there is a lot of sex in this book and it is graphic, almost biological, in its detail. Even if Celeste's partners were adult men, there would be nothing erotic or sexy about these scenes: the word I would use is carnal. Celeste is portrayed not as a victim of her 'condition' but as a ruthless predator, thinking of almost nothing else but her obsession, constantly plotting ways to secure her next target and scoping out her pupils to test their potential. She barely teaches her classes, constantly turning to fantasies and hoping the students will start talking about sex to liven up her day. Although there is one point, near the beginning of the book, when she refers to her sexuality as 'a deformed thing to be kept chained up in the attic', thereafter she pursues her goal almost shamelessly and shows no remorse or emotion. There is also intensely unpleasant content that has nothing to do with underage boys: Celeste is essentially raped at least twice in the book, in scenes that are extremely disturbing to read.
Despite all of the above there is a seam of dark humour running throughout the novel. When Celeste's preferred boy turns fifteen, she wonders whether it would be wise to tactfully introduce him to anti-ageing creams; many of the fantasies she has are ridiculous, in a bizarro sort of way, rather than actually being sexual (aforementioned boy appearing in the form of a giant and crushing her car with his gargantuan penis is just one example). With Celeste drugging herself stupid to endure sex with Ford, stealing away to masturbate furiously over boybands' music videos and fending off the advances of a variety of grotesque adult male characters, this could be seen as a pitch-black satire of the 'perfect' middle-class American marriage.
The more I think about it, the more I think this is an incredibly brave book to have written. Nutting has got so thoroughly inside her protagonist's head that there is nothing the narrative shies away from - it's seriously explicit, and conservative critics of the book are bound to speculate on what this says about the author and why she would have written this story when she could have chosen any other subject. Tampa is an undeniably disturbing piece of work, and I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to everyone because you're going to need a strong stomach to get through some of it: however, it is also brilliantly written, incisive, strangely funny, dark, shocking and clever. If you enjoyed any of the opinion-dividing books I mentioned above, you must read this one too.
Rating: 8/10 | My full review on Goodreads | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback (pre-order)