Tampa by Alissa Nutting

The text on the back of my advance copy of Tampa, Alissa Nutting’s new novel about a female sexual predator who is obsessed with 14-year-old boys, reads ‘*you won’t necessarily be able to say you enjoyed this book*’ and ‘*sure to be the most controversial book of the year*’. On the cover is an image of a pale pink buttonhole opening suggestively. Since its release, there have been reports that some Australian bookstores are refusing stock the book due to its explicit content.

All this, combined with the book’s first sentence – ‘*I spent the night before my first day of teaching in an excited loop of hushed masturbation on my side of the mattress, never falling asleep*’ – had me a little wary. How sick was this book going to get?

The answer, it turns out, is pretty damn sick. And while I expected it to be twisted, what I wasn’t anticipating was for Tampa to be so well written, engaging and wildly entertaining. Despite the warnings and my initial uncertainty, I can say I unequivocally enjoyed reading this book.

The story is told from the point of view of Celeste Price: 26 years old, married, beautiful and about to begin her first year as an eighth-grade English teacher. Celeste is also singularly obsessed with adolescent boys and her every move – from her choice of husband to her choice of career – is designed around her craving for a sexual relationship with a young boy.

Being in Celeste’s head non-stop for 250 unremitting, breathless pages is both the book’s greatest strength and biggest obstacle. Alongside graphic descriptions of her sexual relationship with a student, Celeste also details her vivid, crazy fantasies and observes everyone around her with nasty scorn.

For some readers, being inside Celeste’s head will feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable. But it’s also what makes the book so compelling – like Hannibal Lecter, Dexter Morgan or Patrick Bateman, Celeste is a fascinating monster to spend time with. She’s unapologetic in her desires. She doesn’t hold back a single thought, no matter how dark or repellent. Her detachment from everyone around her allows her to be breathtakingly cruel and surprisingly funny.

Celeste doesn’t have a sympathetic backstory – a brave move on behalf of the author. There’s no tragic past to serve as justification for her behaviour, and no attempt to smooth her jagged edges. Celeste is the way she is. She has very particular tastes and satisfying those tastes is all she cares about. Early on in the book, I was deeply embarrassed by Celeste’s sheer desperation to be noticed by teenage boys. Then it became apparent just how little shame she felt about anything – and exactly how much of a terrifying psychopath she really was – and I stopped cringing for her and started worrying about what she was capable of doing to everyone around her.

When reading Tampa, I laughed. I also put the book down in disgust and outrage. I read lines aloud to my boyfriend. I carried it with me to and from work, to read on my lunchbreak and tram ride. I talked about Tampa to friends. For me, these are all fairly reliable indicators that the book I’m reading is a good one.

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Alissa Nutting

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