Haven’t people got their knickers in a twist over Alissa Nutting’s Tampa? I knew it would be a controversial and difficult read before I began, but this book quite took my breath away. And I’m not entirely sure it’s a good thing.
I feel I need to address the controversy separately from the book itself so I’ll leave the brouhaha til the end.
Tampa is the story of Celeste, the high-maintenance wife of a rich cop who likes pre-pubescent teenage boys. And when I say ‘like’ what I mean is that she has a pathological sexual obsession with them. She trained as an English teacher just so she would be exposed to the possibilities of a relationship with one of her charges, and she quickly picks out her victim. Jack is one of those 14 year olds who still looks like a boy. There are no hints yet of the man he might become and he lacks the maturity to resist his predatory teacher. What follows is Jack’s seduction and systematic abuse by a woman who cares for naught but her sexual satisfaction.
Nutting tells Celeste’s story in the first person forcing the reader into an uncomfortable intimacy with the story. Celeste is obsessed with sex – so long as it’s not with her husband, Ford – and the author describes her acts and fantasies in forensic detail. But far from being titillating or erotic, the sex in this book is cold and emotionless. I found myself praying that Celeste would be caught and put away where she could no longer have access to Jack and his peers, which is why the denouement of the book disappointed me so much.
I have read that Tampa has been likened to a mix of Lolita and American Psycho. Certainly, there is a certain amount of black humour in the book which may remind you of Patrick Bateman, but where the violence in American Psycho largely takes place in Bateman’s head, the atrocities in Tampa do happen to Jack. And as for Lolita, Humbert Humbert was portrayed as having some affection for Lolita. Celeste cares only for herself and her own sexual gratification.
Paedophilia is a distressing topic and Tampa is a very difficult read. As a woman, I found a female paedophile especially distressing – aren’t we supposed to be the nurturers and care-givers? Celeste’s sociopathic selfishness is the antithesis of all we, as a society, expect from women and while I normally like my expectations to be upended by a book, I’m not sure Nutting has done so in a way I enjoyed.
I’ve given a lot of thought to whether or not any topic should be out of bounds for a writer and I think that any censorship is a bad thing. What matters is how the topic is treated and while Celeste is portrayed as exactly what she is, ultimately her punishment didn’t fit her crimes and I was left wanting more.
Would I recommend Tampa to others? Yes, I think so, so long as you go in with your eyes open and are prepared to think about what you’ve read for several days afterwards.