Alissa Nutting’s controversial 2014 debut novel, Tampa, details a 26-year-old teacher’s seduction of a 14-year-old student. Praised as a cutting satire and criticised as a dangerous, sick and morally queasy tale, the novel was inspired by the 2005 case of Debra LaFave, a teacher charged with having sex with under-age students. Nutting and LaFave had attended the same high school, where Nutting had admired LaFave’s good looks and achievement. It was intriguing to her to imagine what lay beneath that seemingly perfect exterior.
The novel is narrated by Celeste Price, first year teacher, sociopath, and child predator, who quite literally can think of nothing but having sex with 14-year-old boys. Her incessant sexual fantasies, masturbation, and stalking of prey fill the pages, forcing readers to confront the issue at the heart of the novel – their own assumptions about gender. These very same thoughts and actions narrated by a male would be considered horrible, but we are also accustomed to the figure of the predatory male paedophile. When we see a female character doing these things, we see her as monstrous beyond belief. Thus two assumptions are challenged as you read this book – the female as incapable of such urges and behaviour, and its being accepted as abberant but expected in a certain percentage of males. The outrage and disgust and laughter in spite of yourself (as referred to in the quotation on the cover) come from these two assumptions being challenged over and over again throughout the novel.
It is a queasy read, it is offensive, it is controversial, but it can also awaken the reader to some hidden gender assumptions, and it’s a damn fine debut novel.
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