The thrill of the taboo

The thrill of the taboo

"Look at this tangle of thorns." – Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Throughout cultural history, society has long held a deep fascination with the idea of 'inappropriate relationships'. 

In the last century alone, scholars have pored over the works of Shakespeare to unveil Freudian interpretations of incestuous passions, while modern cinema presents us with portrayals of inter-generational desire with the likes of Sam Mende's "American Beauty" or Hal Ashby's cult film "Harold and Maude". You only need to look at the recent media storm surrounding privacy super-injunctions to see that the public has an endless appetite for peering in on the lives of others, perhaps to judge, maybe even to compare. Whether it's a married celebrity carrying on with the nanny, or the village teacher eloping with their teenage pupil, we all want to know more.

In fiction, from Nabokov's Lolita (1955) to Zoe Heller's contemporary novel Notes on a Scandal, the inappropriate liaison has always managed to provoke excited debate. Nabokov's controversial novel is narrated by Humbert Humbert, a man whose infatuation with Dolores, the 12-year-old daughter of his landlady, is played out as he marries the mother in order to embark on a relationship with the girl.  Following its release, the novel attracted great scandal due to the paedophilic yearnings of the main protagonist, and yet, despite its discomfiting nature, it went on to be one of the most celebrated classics of the 20th century.

As a writer, the illicit relationship is irresistible to write about. It was this concept of the forbidden that first inspired the idea for my novel, Hurry Up and Wait, a story of adolescent friendships and dangerous relationships in the life of a 1980s schoolgirl. I wanted to explore the idea that while for some a cross-generational relationship is emphatically immoral, even damaging, for others it's unremarkable. Take Playboy's Hugh Hefner, for example, who famously dates young women more than 50 years his junior. Others may find it all a bit distasteful, but many would argue that it's just harmless fun. So, at what point does it become wrong?

Most women will recall that particular junction in adolescence, a brief blossoming moment, where men's eyes linger in new and perplexing ways, ways which most young girls are ill-equipped to interpret or handle. I remember it myself. The sensation was at once thrilling and terrifying, like an impression of cradling something delicate in the palm of your hand, yet possessing no concept of what it is. In Hurry Up and Wait, 15-year-old Sarah Ribbons lives alone with her ageing father, her mother having died when she was an infant. Like most teenagers, her relationships are the central concern in her life, in particular those with her school friends and her on-off boyfriend, Dante. In her naivety, Sarah believes it's these relationships that define her, and as a result, their success becomes her barometer for happiness. When, at the November Night disco, she meets Jason Robson, the young, flirtatious father of her new best friend Kate, the barometer shifts, and Sarah's path is altered immeasurably.

In Heller's novel the forbidden liaison is approached from another perspective, telling the story of Sheba, an unfulfilled teacher in her forties who embarks on a sexual affair with 15-year-old Connolly, one of her pupils. As onlookers, we instinctively judge Sheba's actions as morally wrong: she's an adult in a position of responsibility, and he is a child in her care. But our view of the affair is complicated by our awareness of Connolly's enthusiastic role in events, and of Sheba's apparent love for the boy. Somehow, we have sympathy for this situation, terrified for Sheba when she is under threat of exposure, and it is this ambiguity of feeling that unsettles us as unwitting voyeurs.

Similarly, in Hurry Up and Wait, the spark between Sarah and Jason is uncomfortable for the reader, as we struggle with the imbalance of power presented by their positions of age and status. From the outset, we observe the sinister intent in Jason, and in many ways, so does Sarah; while his attention captivates her, it is something that simultaneously strikes her with fear. As readers we can only look on, as Sarah's choices see her hurtling towards something dangerous and undeniably taboo.

Without doubt, the forbidden liaison will continue to make the headlines, whether it be on the front cover of Hello magazine or in the pages of literary fiction. What provokes our fascination with the subject is complex and multi-layered, but one thing is very clear: everyone loves a scandal.