By Alissa Nutting
I shot through this book while I was on the beaches of Goa…A time I also spent anxiously trying to avoid the sun hitting my skin and burning me instantly. Sadly I was not successful in that mission! But I did finish the book. Here’s my review of it…
‘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’
…And that’s only the first line of the book! Protagonist Celeste is constantly aroused, with an insatiable sexual appetite for young boys. So young, in fact, that the moment they emerge through puberty with adult bodies she is no longer interested. The story follows Celeste as she starts a career in teaching with the seduction of students in mind.
The sex talk is pretty much a constant throughout the book. It did make me a little uncomfortable, but in the way it was intended- after all the boys are children and are mercilessly used by Celeste. She does not display any real affection towards the boys and feels no guilt or shame. However, I found the actual writing of the sex scenes surprisingly un-cringeworthy, Nuttal didn’t dip into ‘throbbing member’ or ‘inner goddess’ style euphemisms, but rather stuck to ‘penis’, ‘buttocks’, ‘breasts’ and so on. On the other hand, although I’m the first person to champion female libidos I did find Celeste’s ability to turn ANYTHING sexual a little funny. I’m sure there may be people out there with this ability but to me in places it seemed a bit far-fetched…
‘By the end of the day, the stink of pheromones clung to the walls of the classroom like wet paint and made me dizzy’. ….Really?!
I liked that the book veers away from stereotypes of women as victims or women as innately caring. Celeste embodies the very opposite of this; coldly calculating how best to seduce the boys using her body and then how best to keep it secret. She does not, as the popular assumption goes, use sex as a way to boost her low self-esteem. She is narcissistic almost to the point of comedy:
‘I wonder what percentage of students- if I came to them in the middle of the night, naked – would agree to have sex with me even if it meant they would die forty-eight hours later. I guessed there would be at least a few’.
And why wouldn’t she be? Every male character in this book seems to be susceptible to her manipulation, every man in it regarding her body as if they were ‘making a scrutinized inspection of something they’d custom-ordered’. Even her marriage is based upon her looking attractive in public for her cop husband, rather than any mutual love and respect. She realises the currency her body holds and exploits it to her best ability.
Towards the end of the book we are confronted with two pervasive female stereotypes; the Madonna and the Whore. Celiste manipulates her image to become more palatable and seemingly innocent; less makeup, lower heels, timid voice, less sexual. No one will sympathise with a ‘whore’. As her students observe, ‘when women hit it they’re labelled sluts, but with men it’s just expected’.
The book also considers the problem of consent- Is it rape if the boys were enthusiastically consenting? But then again what boy wouldn’t consent to a ‘hot blonde’ teacher? Many would say this is exactly why the age of consent is important- are young people able to fully give consent, or does their age makes them vulnerable to emotional and sexual manipulation, making their consent irrelevant?
Clearly, Celiste is psychopathic, not only sexually predatory but verging at times on violent. She has grotesque fantasises that young boys would emerge out of her husband’s body. There is a moment towards the end of the story that it seems she is going to hurt one of the boys.
However, she emerges victorious; ‘too pretty for prison’ and placed under house arrest. The story seems to be inspired by the American Debra Lafave, who pleaded guilty to two counts of lewd or lascivious battery in 2005, but escaped prison after her defence claimed that placing an attractive young woman in prison is like placing ‘a piece of raw meat among lions’. The story highlights a kind of reverse sexism- stereotyping women as harmless and sexually passive and men as unfailingly sexual meant that Celiste was able to escape true justice. Nutting often cleverly uses the students to give a voice to these beliefs: ‘None of that stuff would have happened on an island of girls’ one of them claims in relation to the violence in ‘Lord of the Flies’.
Ultimately it seems that Celeste does not live in a society that wants to believe in highly sexual female predators and therefore does not believe a woman, especially an attractive one, is able to abuse young boys.
A thought provoking book… but not for the faint hearted!