Tuesday, 27 December 2005

Zoe Heller, Notes on a Scandal

Notes on a ScandalJust finished reading Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal, which I picked up because, I admit, the blurb featured some hyperbolic praise comparing the work to that of Amis or McEwan and the first chapter was compelling. Yeah, the blurb wasn't even from a review, just advance praise from Edmund White, but hey, I was looking around in the library for something to read.

The book was, it turns out, nominated for a Booker the year Vernon God Little won, so it's good to know that at least I have a decent publishing-industry eye. (Presumably, the paperback version would have included the lavish praise of reviewers.)

Notes on a Scandal is the tale of Sheba Hart (short for Bathsheba, and that adulterous name will portend something), an English schoolteacher who has an affair with a student, told through the eyes of her friend and fellow teacher Barbara Covett, a sixtysomething-year-old single teacher, the very stereotype of the aging spinster (she even lives with her cat). What Heller does well is absorb you in the world view of Barbara, who moves from what one thinks is an impassive, observant narrator with nothing worse in her than a schoolmarmish tendency to complain about the state of basic comprehensive education, to something altogether more disturbing as the story progresses.

Sheba needs her friend Barbara, of course, as a shield against the media hordes once her scandalous story breaks, but as Notes progresses it becomes clear that Barbara needs Sheba too, and Barbara's loneliness increasingly is revealed as a sort of sinister neediness. It's a story of twin obsessions: Sheba's increasing sexual/romantic obsession with her student, and Barbara's obsession with her friend, the former manifestly obvious, the latter revealed slowly. It's a real page-turner, and Heller's writing is incredibly fine, balancing between Barbara's astute observations of the world and of the things people hide in their own accounts of the world, while simultaneously hiding things from us. On Sheba, Barbara writes near the beginning, that "even now she is inclined to romanticise the relationship and to underestimate the irresponsibility - the wrongness - of her actions", although her factual accounts of the affair can be trusted - yet by the book's end, we wonder just how much the same applies to the narrator we thought we knew, and we wonder just where she gets her confidence that she and Sheba share a "relationship de chaleur", one of "uncommon intimacy and trust". It's a novel stalked by the doubts of relationships - whether of lovers, of friends, or of reader and narrator - and Heller pulls it off wonderfully.

It turns out Judi Dench has the Barbara role in the upcoming film version. Cate Blanchett will play Sheba. Sounds very promising. And very of the times, non, given what seems to be a spate of female teachers in the news for having affairs? And of course, looking the book up on Google for links, who should I find has also borrowed it from the library but my friend Michelle, who beat me to it by a year, and provides excerpts.

Excerpt from Notes on a Scandal.

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