Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

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I watched the movie, Notes on a Scandal years ago and enjoyed it very much, but the book, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, is an absolute ripper. The cover art on this edition, by a tattoo artist named Valerie Vargas which was issued as part of the Penguin Ink series, is also enormously appealing.

The book’s narrator, Barbara Covett, is an almost retired school teacher who is disliked by staff and students equally. Her words are beautifully chosen, biting and precise, as she describes the predicament of Sheba Hart, a fellow teacher at St Georges School, who has been found out having an affair with a student.

Sheba, and art teacher, was new to teaching when she started at St Georges, and although entirely unable to control her students, she quickly became popular with other teachers. Barbara, who is almost completely isolated socially after a falling out with her dear friend Jennifer, is also infatuated with Sheba’s bohemian style and upper class manners and vies with other teachers for Sheila’s attention. Heller’s presentation of Barbara’s loneliness is painful to read.

Sheba seems almost desperate for admiration, and starts an affair with a Year 11 boy, Steven Connolly. When the affair is found out, Barbara becomes Sheba’s companion, in hiding from the media after Sheba’s husband Richard kicks her out of the family home.

Every character in this novel is a predator to some degree. Barbara controls Sheba’s situation to force Sheba to depend on her and her alone, Sheba’s husband is much older than Sheba and Barbara’s presentation of their history shows Sheba being selected and groomed by Richard as his second wife. Steven preys on Sheba to force the affair and of course Sheba, who is in her forties with children of her own, has preyed on Steven, by encouraging his schoolboy lust for her.

Barbara, in a supposed attempt to present the ‘true’ version of the events, as opposed to the lies and distortions which are appearing in the media, writes what becomes Notes on a Scandal, pumping Sheba for more and more information about the affair. Eventually Sheba finds Barbara’s notes and realises that Barbara was responsible for the affair becoming public.

Barbara appears to be a lesbian who has never experienced a love affair of her own, although this is never confirmed by actual words or actions in the book. Barbara writes that society is unwilling to forgive or accept love or lust in any other form than the norm, and in her narrative, presents Sheba and Steven’s affair almost as a case in point.

The affair itself is hard to understand, at least from Sheba’s point of view. Steven simply says Sheba is “hot,” which from a 15 year old boy, is straightforward enough. But as a forty something year old woman, I can’t understand Sheba’s attraction to Steven. Fifteen year old boys were fascinating when I was a teenager, but now? Not very. For a woman to risk her marriage, children, career and position in society seems ridiculous.

I read Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, many years ago and found it to be much more disturbing than Notes on a Scandal. I don’t know if that is because of the reverse gender issue with a teenage girl and older man (and I do recognise my hypocrisy), or if my unease is because of the more explicit telling of Lolita and Humbert’s affair. Either way, both books work (as art’s purpose is to create an emotion in the reader or viewer).

Moral questions aside, Notes on a Scandal is a wonderfully written book. I don’t have a point scoring system for my reviews, but if I did, this book is five out of five.

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