Tuesday, 25 November 2003

Zoë Heller: Notes on a Scandal (2003)

Edition: Viking, 2003
Review number: 1198

In recent years, there have been a fair few tabloid scandals about teachers having affairs with pupils. Zoë Heller's second novel is about precisely this, forty year old teacher Sheba Hart and her affair with a fifteen year old boy (younger than her own daughter). The story is told by an older teacher from the same school, Barbara Covett, who has become Sheba's closest friend, and it is in her narration that Heller has written something more than just a run of the mill novel about being in this sort of situation.

For what Heller does is to use Barbara's narration to expose her character - we learn, for example, that she makes a habit of starting possessive, managing friendships with younger female teachers. As she's about to retire, the age gap between her and Sheba is almost as much as that between Sheba and the boy - a point which Heller pointedly makes Barbara ignore. Most of the novel is concerned with the relationship between the two women, as that is what Barbara is interested in, rather than the media hounding of Sheba, the court appearances or even the affair itself (which is mainly discussed as a measure of Sheba's independence from Barbara's wishes).

The inadvertent self-revelation isn't particularly subtle, but is interesting and doesn't fit into the usual convention of the more or less impersonal narrator (which even affects first person narratives in many cases - where the narrator is really the author rather than a character in their own right). Barbara is quite a bitter woman, intolerant of the foibles of any except her current favourite, and this often makes what she says about other people tartly amusing.

Issues which would be considered important parts of the plot by most writers (whether a liaison between teacher and pupil would cause different reactions according to the sexes of the individuals involved, whether a fifteen year old boy - less than a year short of the age of consent in Britain - would feel exploited by such a relationship, how the teacher's family might feel, especially when she has a daughter of about the same age, and so on) are passed over briefly in this novel, or ignored completely. It is far more about the one thing which interests Barbara - herself. Notes on a Scandal is a novel to make the reader think about self-centredness.

Barbara is not a particularly pleasant person, and her character is well portrayed as such (the contrast between the feelings evoked by the distress of other human beings and by the death of Barbara's pet cat - the one being who offers her unconditional love - is an example of the sort of method Heller uses to do this).

All in all, a fun, amusing, thought provoking if occasionally vicariously embarrassing novel, well deserving of being on the Booker short list.

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