First-novelist Coote turns Nabokov on his head in this tale of an Aussie Lolita who sets her sights on a witless teacher who thinks he’s falling in love with her.
In her dreamy, epistolary narrative, a nameless and decidedly precocious 16-year-old seductress decides she must have her 34-year-old teacher at any cost. It isn’t long before she’s cajoled her way into his bed; not long after that, he loses his job, she runs away from her aunt and uncle’s house, and the two of them are cohabitating. Describing what the narrator does as “seduction,” however, is almost a misnomer, since sexual pleasure just about never enters into her head. Early in the book, she kills time compulsively sketching other girls in her class, usually contorted into painful, sexually degrading positions. It doesn’t seem to give her any sexual gratification; she simply likes the feeling of power. To ward off any readers who might be wondering what deep, Freudian secrets lie in the tangled recesses of her mind, the protagonist makes this categorical declaration: “It was my personal evil . . . wasn’t young and malleable and suffering from an overdose of Hannibal the Cannibal. I wasn’t a victim of child sexual abuse. I didn’t grow up in a civil war zone.” The 25-year-old author, who apparently wrote Innocents when she was only 19, excels at describing the infinite small ways in which the girl manipulates every aspect of her life with the teacher to maintain his sexual attraction to her. If he’s not looking at her with utter lust every second of the day, then a new trick must be devised—fast. Coote deserves acclaim not just for the narrator’s remarkably compelling voice but for so ruthlessly limning her deepening psychosis. Without falling back on dime-store psychology, she does not forget for a moment that true dementia lurks in the girl’s behavior.
Tar-black comedy and psychosexual gamesmanship—both make for an enthralling and ultimately sobering debut.