Things that are truly innocent don’t need to be labelled as such.
I haven’t read a real page-turner for ages. My reading tends to be immersive in a different way – getting lost in lovely sentences, pausing to consider what I’ve read. Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal (also titled What Was She Thinking?) changed the routine. I raced through it, keen to see what happened to the (quite frankly) horrible characters.
Frumpy and rigid schoolteacher Barbara Covett has led a solitary life until 41-year-old Sheba Hart joins the staff at St. George’s College, and befriends her. Sheba is the new ceramics teacher – she’s charismatic and laid-back, but also inexperienced in terms of managing her students and staff room politics, and Barbara is only too happy to guide her. But as Barbara and Sheba’s friendship develops, so too does Sheba’s relationship with a 16-year-old male student, Steven Connolly. When the affair is revealed and the media descends, Barbara decides to write an account in Sheba’s defense, which results in exposing not only Sheba’s secrets, but also her own.
There are certain people in whom you can detect the seeds of madness – seeds that have remained dormant only because the people in question have lived relatively comfortable, middle class lives. They function perfectly well in the world, but you can imagine, given a nasty parent, or a prolonged bout of unemployment, how their potential for craziness might have been realized.
Despite the blurb and my description, this is not a book about the double standard of an adult woman in a relationship with a boy, versus a man in an equivalent relationship with a girl, and nor is it about the affair per se (see Alissa Nutting’s appalling Tampa if that’s what you’re after). Instead, Heller focuses on more compelling themes – loneliness, power in the context of the women’s friendship, and mothering.
There are clues from the outset that Barbara is an unreliable narrator, demonstrated in her juvenile jealousies in the staff room, and mention of a previous broken friendship with a colleague.
…what is romance, but a mutual pact of delusion? When the pact ends, there’s nothing left.
As the story progresses, the depths of Barbara’s loneliness and neediness are revealed, and her attempts to insert herself in Sheba’s life become more calculated.
Heller embeds Barbara’s loneliness in almost every scene, either subtlety – ‘When you live alone, your furnishings, your possessions, are always confronting you with the thinness of your existence…’ or more directly –
Being alone is not the most awful thing in the world. You visit your museums and cultivate your interests and remind yourself how lucky you are not to be one of those spindly Sudanese children with flies beading their mouths. You make out To Do lists – reorganize linen cupboard, learn two sonnets. You dole out little treats to yourself – slices of ice-cream cake, concerts at Wigmore Hall. And then, every once in a while, you wake up and gaze out of the window at another bloody daybreak, and think, I cannot do this anymore. I cannot pull myself together again and spend the next fifteen hours of wakefulness fending off the fact of my own misery.
The structure of the novel (beginning in the ‘present’ and then rewinding to describe the event) raises the question of what came first – Barbara’s toxicity or her loneliness and self-loathing.
Any break in my routine – any small variation to the sequence of work and grocery shopping and telly and so on – tends to take on a disproportionate significance. I’m a child in that respect: able to live, physically speaking, on a crumb of anticipation for weeks at a time, but always in danger of crushing the waited-for event with the freight of my excessive hope.
I imagine that Notes on a Scandal was initially classed as a light-weight thriller, but Heller ignores the template, and invests in details that make this book character-driven rather than action-driven. I enjoyed her writing style, which is evocative and original. For example, of Stephen Barbara says, ‘…his voice still had a trace of boy in it – a scraping clarinet tootle…’ and of watching a fireworks display for which she has no interest, ‘…we all stayed there for a full frigid hour, dutifully manufacturing sharp intakes of breath and other symptoms of ingenuous wonderment.’
Notes on a Scandal was a bestseller when it was published in 2003, and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize the same year. It has since been made into a movie starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. I’ve added it to my to-be-watched list.
4/5 Happily absorbed for a few wonderful reading hours.
Slowly, however, as the cigarette and the Swiss Roll dwindled, my rage began to evaporate… Sheba had behaved very poorly towards me, that was certain. But she hadn’t meant to hurt me…