Coote, Cathy 1977-
COOTE, Cathy 1977-
Born 1977. Education: Attended Narrabundah College and Australian National University.
Agent—c/o Cameron Cresswell Management, 5/2 New McLean St., Edgecliff, Sydney 2027, Australia.
Sydney Morning Herald Young Writer of the Year, 1995; Canberra Times Young Writer of the Year, 1993 and 1995.
Innocents, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Columnist for Sun Herald, 1996; writing also published in Canberra Times and Sydney Morning Herald.
WORK IN PROGRESS:
The Red Queen.
Cathy Coote wrote her debut novel, Innocents, at the age of nineteen. The disturbing tale of a sixteen-year-old Australian schoolgirl who seduces her high school English teacher, Innocents received critical acclaim both in Australia and in the United States. Erika Krouse wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "Coote is a natural, wryly dissecting the workings of human desire. She damns and absolves her characters in the space of a minute. Her touch is a ruthless finger in a wound."
Coote, who grew up in Australia, the daughter of two doctors, told the ACT Writers Centre: "I have [been writing] ever since I was old enough to hold a pencil." While still in her teens, she received three Young Writer of the Year Awards—one from the Sydney Morning Herald and two from the Canberra Times— and had stories and columns published in other Australian newspapers.
In Innocents Coote's schoolgirl narrator, who remains unnamed, has always felt herself to be different from her peers. Caught drawing masochistic, degrading sketches of her female classmates, the girl seeks the friendship of her teacher—also unnamed—and thus sets in motion the relationship at the center of what Krouse called "a vivid and uncomfortable book."
The epistolary form of the novel—the text is simply one long letter to her teacher—allows the reader to remain in the claustrophobic world of the narrator's mind. A writer for Kirkus Reviews commented that Coote "excels at describing the infinite small ways in which the girl manipulates every aspect of her life" in order to remain sexually attractive to her teacher; she sucks her thumb, wears childish clothes, colors with crayons. In enacting the sexual role-play of a father-daughter relationship, Coote's narrator is deliberately conscious of Freudian theory. But she is also careful to point out that she is not the victim of sexual abuse or any other emotionally scarring childhood trauma—she's simply an orphan girl with a twisted mind, brought up by her aunt and uncle and (thus far) successfully maintaining a wholesome outward appearance. (Her teacher, in an unusual twist, has a more unhappy history: he was abused as a child, and his wife left him.) Although some critics, such as San Francisco Chronicle's David Hill, felt that Coote's "narrator is more convincing as troubled teen than cold-blooded sexual predator," most reviewers appreciated the calculated complexity of the narrator.
As the months go by, the illicit relationship develops between the narrator and her teacher, forcing the narrator continually to construct more devices to keep her lover trapped by his desire. She snoops in his personal papers and spies on him, collecting information which she uses to her advantage. When the teacher finally resigns from the school, they move together to another town and live under the rather implausible guise of uncle and niece. The stakes get higher and higher in their game of sexual manipulation, however, as the narrative begins to point towards what Krouse called a "devastating" climax.
The relationship between the schoolgirl and her thirty-four-year-old teacher has necessarily elicited comparisons with Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita, although most critics have found Coote's novel to be an exploration—and in fact a reversal—of the dynamic found in Lolita. A Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote: "The rejection of sentimentality and the carefully calibrated knowingness make this more than just another Nabokov knockoff." Coote's book seems to call into question the assumed roles of victim and perpetrator; the narrator's calculated manipulations place her in the position of the seducer, whereas her defenseless teacher appears to be the "innocent." Indeed, despite all of her sexual manipulation, the narrator doesn't really enjoy the act of sex; the game is simply about power. Absolute Write online reviewer Amy Brozio-Andrews wrote that " Innocents chronicles a young woman's exercise in power. Powerless in her family and social circle, she is intrigued at her newfound dominance over a man, eighteen years her senior—a 'grownup.'" Mark Rozzo, writing for the Los Angeles Times, noted how well the book, "written by a teenager, portrays adult, innocence-ending consequences."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bulletin with Newsweek, November 23, 1999, Judith White, review of Innocents, p. 8.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2002, review of Innocents, p. 899.
Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2002, Mark Rozzo, review of Innocents, p. R14.
New York Times Book Review, November 3, 2002, Erika Krouse, review of Innocents, p. 29.
Publishers Weekly, July 15, 2002, review of Innocents, p. 52.
San Francisco Chronicle, November 2, 2002, David Hill, review of Innocents, p. 4.
Absolute Write,http://www.absolutewrite.com/ (May 28, 2003), review of Innocents.
ACT Writers Centre,http://www.actwriters.org.au/ (May 28, 2003), interview with Coote.*