Sophie's Choice

Category: Read

Book Review: Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Before I start to go into detail about Alissa Nutting’s debut novel, this has to be said. This novel is not for the shy reader, if you are somewhat of a sexual prude and cringe and the thought of even the word “vagina” being read then do not read this book!

Tampa is the story of Celeste Price an 8th grade high school English Teacher in Tampa. Celeste on the surface has it all, she is devastatingly attractive,  smart, wealthy and has a doting cop husband. But Celeste has a deep dark secret, she has a painfully strong sexual desire for 14 year old boys. Throughout the novel Celeste ruthlessly manipulates several of her 14 year old boy students into bed. Celeste is obsessed with having sex with these boys, when she’s not having sex with them in a classroom or car, she’s masturbating on her school desk about having sex with 14 year old boys. She will do anything to appease her sexual needs. It consumes her and she doesn’t care.

The main issue that Tampa explores is the current gender view on sexual relationships. Loosely inspired by Nutting’s fellow high school pupil Debra Lafave who was convicted of having sex with 14 year old boys, and famously dodged serving any prison time as she was labelled “too pretty for prison”.

Tampa is written from the perspective of Celeste, so the reader gets a graphic, perverted and sociopathic insight into her attitude and behaviour, and believe me she is nothing less than a sociopath. Whilst reading this book, as a reader you will experience outrage that society and the law would allow Celeste (and Lafave) to not serve any prison time due to her appearance.

Tampa reminds us of  the issue that society still makes the assumption and generalisation that women are the passive aggressive gender, and males are the aggressors. Society still finds it hard to imagine a woman sexually abusing a male, granted it doesn’t happen a lot, but it STILL happens.

If a 14 year old girl was sexually abused by a male teacher, he would be described as a raping pedophile that sickeningly manipulates a passive victim with no sexuality of her own being used. However if we flip this around like in Tampa, questions and doubts are raised – “Is this not the perfect teen male fantasy?”,  “He must of wanted in some sort of way?”. The media tends to blanket over the mental and emotional manipulation and focusing on the physical abuse instead.

I have to admit that the language and the graphical content left me uncomfortable throughout the novel and I constantly found myself thinking “what the actual fuck am I reading? Am I sociopath for even reading this?”, but I personally feel that this was Nutting’s intention, to make you fully realise Celeste’s animalistic and disgusting appetite for prepubescent 14 year old boys. Celeste needs to be a monster and a sexual predator to show that it is possible for women to be monsters and that they go unfairly unpunished due to just being a female.

I read quite a few reviews on this book before I wrote this, and I noticed that a lot of people were comparing it to that of Lolita. I don’t think these books can even be closely compared as they explore completely different views on society. In Lolita you feel slight sympathy to Humbert as he loved Lolita. I can guarantee that you will feel no sympathy towards Celeste as she is no way in this for love, she is purely driven by the thought of sex. This is not a novel about love or romance, Nutting makes no attempt to convince the reader that Celeste is in this for an emotional reward, it is just sex with 14 year old boys.

It’s not the greatest of novels but i’ll give Nutting credit, it is a very brave first novel and explores issues that haven’t been fully addressed. Also, the book is sickeningly funny in a ridiculous crude way.

P.s. Maybe purchase as an e-book as the front cover of the book just reminds everyone of a vagina and I found it quite hard to cover with my hands on the train to work.

 

An Untamed State – A grueling tale of kidnap and redemption

Roxane Gay’s debut novel that centres on a woman’s struggle to survive a brutal kidnap in her native home of Haiti.

The story focuses on Mireille Duval Jameson, an American born daughter of a wealthy Haitian construction magnate. Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight and held captive for 13 days by Haitian gangsters who are seeking some sort of retribution for economical equality.

Gay reveals her literary intent in the first sentence “Once upon a time, in a far-off land..” the passage cuts to the crux “I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men, with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin…They held me captive for 13 days”. The novel is set in the past tense, so as a reader we already know she survives, turning the standard thriller on its head – it’s not a story of murder it’s a story of what one woman’s body can endure as punishment from her farther’s supposed misdeeds.

Mireille is kidnapped at gun point whilst leaving the gates of her suburban secure family mansion. There are plenty of witnesses, neighbours and passers-by that cluster around and do nothing as she is whisked away in a black SUV with armed men as her toddler cries in the back of her car and her husband unconscious. The hopelessness and silent complicity also defines the reaction of Mireille’s family. In most contemporary stories, a father would do anything for his precious daughter and is usually oblivious to the ferocious and evil nature of the central villain. However in this circumstance it is down to her fathers unwillingness to give up on his own fairy tale that sets the events in motion. Towards the end of the novel he defends his actions by describing a neighbor who suffered a kidnapping repeatedly till they had nothing “I had to think about your mother, your sister, my sisters, the rest of our family,” he says. “Paying for you would sacrifice them too. It killed me to imagine what you were going through, but I am responsible for many lives.”

What impressed me so much about this book was Gay’s remarkable skill to portray the enormous pain and suffering Mireille endured throughout her captivity. The graphic rape and torture that she experiences made me repulse but I couldn’t turn away from her story. I couldn’t wait to finish the book, but I didn’t want the story to end.

An Untamed State beholds so many themes, being held against your will, the suffering that people go through due to social inequality and what people will do to fight for that equality. What is fair? There is one particular conversation between Mireille and “the Commander”, the leader of the men who have taken her, that really made me think. Whilst being held captive Mireille says to the Commander that neither herself or her family are to blame for Haiti’s problems, he counters with the accusation “You are complicit even if you do not actively contribute to the problem because you do nothing to solve it.” It made me think, to what degree are we our brothers keeper? What, if anything do the wealthy few in Haiti owe to the many poor?

The Commanders rage isn’t anything personal to Mireille, but to her father who made a fine living in the US, put all his children through education, lived his fairy tale life with his wife and then returned to his native Haitian land and built his construction empire. However Gay is never clear whether all of this is ill-gained or at a result of corruption, but the book strongly suggests that being wealthy in a country as poor as Haiti is inherently a crime. Mireille’s body is the “Untamed State” the landscape on which a political and economical war is waged by men who want to use it to fulfill their own ideological purposes. Gay really is a powerhouse of a writer in which she tells Mireille’s story sparingly and unflinching in its portrayal of spiritual and sexual violence.

Mireille’s story doesn’t end when she is released from captors, but really it is at it’s beginning. Trying to reconnect with her loving husband who doesn’t quite grasp the emotional and physical ordeal she was put through and her infant son who yearns for a mothers embrace but she just can’t bring herself to touch him as she feels “dirty”. Mireille also cannot come to terms with how her father who is supposed to love her abandoned her and her complicit mother who stood by him.

“An Untamed State” is the story of a willful woman attempting to get back to the person she was and how redemption can be found in the most unexpected of places

Before We Met – Lucie Whitehouse

Lucie Whitehouse’s third novel is a slow starter but when it goes up a gear it holds a creepy sense of dread that makes it a nail biting marriage thriller.

Thrirtysomething single brit Hannah is enjoying her career in NY, when she meets fellow Brit Mark and they embark on a whirlwind romance, she decides to quit her job, relocate back to London and get married.

Hannah’s new found life of marriage isn’t what is seems; she’s unemployed and spending  weeks alone in a huge central London apartment, whilst her husband is jet setting between NY and LDN for his own software company is growing strength to strength.

On a dark, stormy, wintery night Hannah embarks on her regular wifely duty of picking Mark up from Heathrow and to her surprise he doesn’t arrive. As she starts to realise how little she knows about her husband, she begins to suffer from a ‘niggling’ feeling “a strange itching feeling as if she’d put on a rough wool jumper next to her skin”. When she discovers her bank account has been emptied she embarks on a dangerous investigation, however the more discovers about her husband secret life the more her own life unravels and she struggles to determine what is a truth or a lie and what is kindness or deceit.

Before We Met is placed in the niche made popular by ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Before I Go To Sleep’. Whitehouse explores the themes;  widening cracks in relationships, how well do you really know someone and marriage dependencies when unemployed. Unlike Gone Girl, Before We Met has a much slower start and the first half of the novel has an overwhelming amount of flashbacks and space filling specifics about Hannah and Marks ‘proper jobs’. The minor characters aren’t fully coloured in and Whitehouse tries and failes hard to make her characters more 3 dimensional, endearing and interesting.

Despite its flaws Before We Met hits its stride when it turns into a dark creepy thriller that is difficult to put down. Adding to the shivers is the descriptions of the wintery dark weather which corresponds with the creation of Marks disturbed mind. Whitehouse displays her skills as a talented writer when she describes Hannah’s growing fear and her discovery of the sand her marriage was built on, “she dreamed strange scraps of stories connected by a single common thread: the important knowledge she had virtually forgotten” Whitehouse writes poetically when Hannah wakes from a troubled sleep.

Whitehouse has successfully created a novel with tension that doesn’t lose grip, but actually tightens as the story develops. With a glamorous protagonist and translantic appeal this book has a film script written all over it.