Monday, 14 March 2011

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

Notes on a ScandalNotes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is never a good idea to watch the film version before reading the book, however I felt in this case this was an exception. The 2006 film starred Judy Dench, one of my favourite actresses, and Cate Blanchett, who both fit remarkably well with the characters described in the book.

The story is probably very well known by now and it describes the relationship between two teachers: the sixty-something, single Barbara Covett and the forty-something pretty and naïve Sheba Hart, who has an affair with one of her pupils that is subsequently exposed.

The story is narrated by Barbara in the form of a recollection and diary, and it manages to give Sheba's point of view throughout their friendship remarkably well. Through Barbara, who comes across as manipulative, selfish and haughty, as well as painfully lonely, we learn of the trials and tribulations in Sheba's mind which have led to the affair and its consequences.

I was astounded at how deeply and clearly the author communicated the complexity of both characters and their motivations: Barbara's excruciating solitude and Sheba's lack of assertiveness which leads to terrible consequences. I felt outraged at Barbara's behaviour and at the same time extremely sorry for her loneliness, and found myself debating whether it would explain, if not justify, her actions.

Barbara is painfully critical of anything and anyone which doesn't conform to her own sky-high standards, but this is her own justification for being alone. She doesn't seem to have any friends except for Sheba, and we are told of a previous friendship that ended up badly. Indeed, we can see why: Barbara sees friendships as exclusive, all-encompassing and overwhelming, not leaving anything for the other person to choose for herself without risking the scorn of Barbara herself if the choice is not to her liking.

I also felt outraged at Sheba's behaviour, who felt to me like she was letting her life and her actions being led by chance and by anyone who expressed an interest in her or what she was doing; at the same time I couldn't help but feel sorry for her and what was happening to her, which indeed was more than sufficient punishment for just lack of assertiveness.

Although there aren't many twists and turns in the plot because of the nature of the story, the narration is extremely absorbing and the rhythm comparable to a psychological thriller. I would recommend this book wholeheartedly as one of the best novels I've read in the last few years.

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