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Being Lolita by Alisson Wood review – memoir of an illicit relationship | Autobiography and memoir

Teenagers are so vulnerable. Like ripe peaches, they’re too easily bruised. But Alisson Wood was more defenceless than most. At 17, she had already undergone ECT in an effort to treat her depression; beneath her clothes, her arms bore the marks of self-harm. If her American high school was a place to be endured – the other girls, in their locker-room sententiousness, had decided she was a “psycho” – home was hardly a refuge. Her parents, who would soon divorce, were more preoccupied with their own troubles than with those of their exhausting, Sylvia Plath-loving daughter.

Was this why the teacher chose her? Or was it simply that having been assigned to give her extra support, Mr North had an excuse for favouring Wood above other students? Either way, she was an easy target. At their first meeting, she took in his hair, which was too long, and his clothes, which were from Abercrombie & Fitch, as if he were a teenager, too, and felt stunned: “like an animal across a meadow”. Soon, she was meeting him every night at a diner in the next town. It was there that he gave her a copy of Lolita, his favourite novel. “This book is lust, yearning, and occupational hazards,” read his inscription, which I guess is one way of putting it.

If this scene – a predatory teacher grooming a student by encouraging her to read Nabokov – was in a film, you’d rightly think it preposterous. But Being Lolita is not fiction; it’s memoir. The reader, then, must try to put aside the feeling that its author’s account of her relationship with Mr North feels embarrassingly schematic; that by repeatedly returning to Nabokov’s story, as she comes close to admitting herself, she is merely using his narrative to elevate her own (“to raise it above the tawdry”). Nor must we bridle at her depressing verdict on female agency (“no matter how active or passive a girl is, she is still doomed”). She has suffered. To do anything else would be unkind.

But I must be honest. This book feels like therapy, and writing should never be only that. If Wood’s style, which aims for suspense – Will Mr North get found out? Will they really wait until she is 18 to sleep together? Will he ditch her once she is at university? – gives it, at moments, the pulpy, almost romantic feel of an airport novel, it’s also unsuccessful. Nothing that happens is surprising; no image lingers long in the mind. Two hundred pages in, and I still had no clear image of Mr North, save for the soft swell of his belly (his weight fixates them both). He remains, throughout, an outline: not a charismatic figure, but a juvenile one. The kind of man who, at 26, is proud of the length of his penis, which he has carefully measured; who uses the word “harlot” when annoyed by a woman; and whose pride in his Cornell degree only makes his ropey literary criticism all the more laughable.

Wood is clear that her teacher and his coercive behaviour damaged her; that having groomed her, he bullied and abused her. For a long time afterwards, she writes, she was attracted only to men, married or otherwise unavailable, who wanted to keep her a secret – and secrets, as we all know, are corrosive. They induce a loss of self. If you do not exist in the minds of a lover’s friends and family, you’re halfway to not existing at all. But in terms of deep thinking, this is as far as Wood will go. The mere act of putting down her story, with its redemptive coda in which she describes her own teaching career and all the ways in which she hopes to empower girls, is seemingly enough for her (and her editors). What’s strange about the result is how little discomfort it involves for the reader; how rarely this narrative truly provokes. There is surely a good and challenging book to be written about the erotic charge that, for good or/and ill, is often involved in pedagogy; about relationships that, though they may be wrong, are not illegal. But Being Lolita, so limp and overly straightforward, is not, alas, it.

Being Lolita by Alisson Wood is published by Orion (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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