Book #42

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

From the first day that the beguiling Sheba Hart joins the staff of St George's history teacher Barbara Covett is convinced she has found a kindred spirit. Barbara's loyalty to her new friend is passionate and unstinting and when Sheba is discovered having an illicit affair with one of her pupils, Barbara quickly elects herself as Sheba's chief defender. But all is not as it first seems in this dark story and, as Sheba will soon discover, a friend can be just as treacherous as any lover.

I was completely unprepared for how absolutely wonderful this novel was going to be. It’s chilling, unsettling, and utterly, utterly captivating.

Any stories in the news of teachers having sexual relationships with their pupils are generally categorised in the same ways by both the press and the public. The pupil is perpetually an innocent, naïve victim, lured into inappropriate liaisons by the teacher. The latter is often described as a sex-crazed predator, a pervert conniving to groom and exploit the wholesome young person. Heller turns this idea on its head entirely, and comments on our perceptions of such crimes.

Although we’d love for issues like these to be as clear-cut as possible; to be able to scream obscenities at the accused, look after the abused, Heller explores the idea here that things simply aren’t as elementary as this, particularly when it comes to sex. The ways in which she achieves this are so clever, so outside of the norm, and just so bloody readable; I was engrossed from the beginning. It was difficult to ascertain which of them really was the predator.

Her narrative is what grabbed me here. Written by Barbara, a colleague and friend of our so-called predator, it gives us all of the facts from an entirely unreliable vantage. Barbara is much older and experienced in the ways of teaching than Sheba (the she-wolf), and ends up being her confidante in both the affair, and other aspects of Sheba’s chaotic life. She lays out the events as delivered to her from Sheba’s tongue, also affording us the opportunity of hearing her own thoughts on the matter.

Barbara, however, is a frightening narrator. Originally coming across as a wise and trusted being, your typical older spinster lady with a cat, it quickly becomes apparent Barbara has issues of her own. These trickle into her narrative almost seductively, and so carefully, that the slow realisation that you should be questioning her authenticity comes like a sudden death.

The beauty of this novel is that it screams ‘forbidden love and romance’ before you open the first page, but it’s barely about love, sex, or romance; it’s about people, loneliness, perceptions, manipulation and assumption. I could have read it for the rest of my life.