“Notes on a Scandal” by Zoë Heller- a review.

Popular travel writer and social commentator, Bill Bryson, said he had difficulty writing about Australia in his book “Downunder” because he likes this country. He said it was much easier to criticise than to praise. After you have said that something is good, that’s about it. As it turns out, Bryson’s admiration for Australia resulted in a book that was less humorous and certainly not as entertaining as his previous works.

In the same way that Bryson could not do his usual acerbic shtick in “Downunder”, I’m having trouble writing about “Notes on a Scandal”. I liked it too much to pick it to bits.

It’s a book that is absorbing to read and after you have finished it you keep thinking about it. The theme is complex and yet the author has such a brilliant method of delivery that the reader is carried along the many twists and turns of the plot inexorably to a conclusion that makes sense. So many novels are left up in the air because the author was promising in the beginning but did not know what to do about the characters at the end. It’s as if the end came when the ideas ran out. I find that happens in the novels by Nick Earls. They simply fizzle out. Not very satisfactory.

Heller’s novel knows exactly where it is going. The style is compact and yet eloquent. She knows how to write well.

“Notes on a Scandal” is about the relationship between two very different women, one young and the other, middle-aged. They are both teachers at a ghastly English comprehensive school. Sheba is the younger one who arrives at the school believing that she can make a difference and actually teach something to pupils who, in reality, couldn’t care less.

Barbara is the mature history teacher who is utterly fed up with the school and with trying to teach those monsters anything of use. I have met many such teachers in my teaching career and I always reflect on what D.H Lawrence said about his pupils and how he couldn’t wait for the lesson to be over.

A sort of friendship develops between these two women. Actually, Barbara is much more interested in Sheba than Sheba is in her. You see, Sheba is interested in one of her young male pupils and she commits a terrible misdemeanour by having an affair with him. Did I mention that Sheba is a bit of a twit?

It is no mere coincidence that the temptress in “Notes on a Scandal” is called Sheba after the Biblical Bathsheba who led King David astray. The author likes to amuse herself with names, hence, Sheba’s surname, Hart, a defenceless deer pierced by a hunter’s arrow. And then there’s the other player, the senior teacher in this drama and her name is Barbara Covett. She will covet Sheba. That’s the nub of the novel. I saw the film a while back but the novel has so much more to offer.

The story is told by Barbara in flashbacks. Not one word is wasted as the plot develops at a steady pace. No long descriptions of weather or scenery, no padding. We are swept along as Barbara tells a harrowing story of illicit love between teacher and pupil and teacher and teacher.

The novel is a psychologist’s dream. We observe Sheba falling headlong into a dangerous relationship and yet we cannot completely rebuke her for it. Our empathy for Sheba is due to Heller’s special skill in making us understand Sheba’s descent into a living Hell. Even though she perpetrates a crime Heller presents her as a victim. A teacher guilty of having sex with a fifteen year old pupil and yet after having been discovered and condemned by everyone she still cannot give him up. It is a tragedy on a mythological level with lust as the catalyst in the two main characters.

Aware of this affair and contriving to take advantage of Sheba’s plight, Barbara becomes obsessed with the younger woman. She keeps a written diary of their friendship and becomes Sheba’s confidante.

Oddly enough, there are no genuinely innocent characters in the novel which makes for a more interesting view of the world. Sheba’s husband is not a pleasant guy, nor is he loyal to her. Her children are pretty disappointing and she even has to care for her frustrating Down’s Syndrome son. Surprisingly, we never hear her complain about him. She drifts along in a sort of naive manner, failing as an art teacher and with very little satisfaction in her family life. Thus, Sheba is an easy target for some sexual dalliance.

Barbara is similarly miserable. She hates her job, the other teachers and the pupils. All she has in life is her cat to whom she is devoted.

In a way, the palpable loneliness of the characters reminds me of novels by Anita Brookner in which the characters wander through life trying to find a connection usually with an unworthy person just for the sake of human contact. But Heller has more action in her work. The pace is fast for a psychological and character-based work. It keeps one turning the pages, something that Brookner could not achieve.

The best compliment that I can give to “Notes on a Scandal” is that I could read it over again. It’s the kind of novel that promises even more from a second reading.

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