Friday 6 January 2012

Notes on a Scandal

I find that I can include 'Notes on a Scandal' by Zoe Heller in the Orange January challenge because it was long listed in 2004. This was pure coincidence as I had picked out the audiobook before Christmas, and have been listening to it with Dunk over the last few days (or rather listening to it in the living room and obliging Dunk to partake, I like to think he got into the story towards the end but you can never tell with him.)

This book was not quite what I expected. I thought it was a story about the scandal, or even about the relationship between Sheba and Barbara, but in reality it isn't. It's a very creepy and enthralling portrait of Barbara, told in her own words. The book takes the form of partly a diary of the events that follow the scandal breaking, and alongside that Barbara's notes about the events in questions, what she claims to be an objective version of them, but which reveals far more about her than it does about Sheba.

So the story is that Sheba is a pottery teacher who forms a relationship with a fifteen year old pupil. Barbara is the school stalwart who has worked very hard to build a close trusting relationship with Sheba, whom she sees as a kindred spirit. In the aftermath of the exposure of the relationship she is the one who continues to support Sheba, seeing it as an 'us two against the world' kind of situation. But from little hints that she drops along the way you get the impression that Sheba is only the latest in a line of 'kindred spirits' that Barbara has forged friendships with, only to be inevitably let down and disappointed. She talks about Sheba, describes and analyses her behaviour, and that of other teachers at the school, but it is Barbara herself who we really come to know. She says very little about herself but what is excellent about the book is that she is revealed/betrayed by her own thoughts. There is at one point a very affecting description of the nature of loneliness, quite heartrending, and you feel deep sympathy for Barbara, but as the situation for Sheba worsens you see that she is getting what she has always desired, a person who needs her more than she needs them. She relishes Sheba's dependency and isolation, her need for Barbara. It made me laugh out loud several times at her cutting but astute observations of the people around her. The story also has some interesting and perceptive things to say about the angst of being middle aged, and the self-involved nature of teenagers, there is not a hint of surprise at the notion that the young man abruptly and inexplicably loses interest in the whole affair. Unusually for me I didn't like anyone in the story, Sheba is weak and shallow and selfish, the men are all obnoxious, but you just can't tear yourself away. A most sad and twisted individual, small-minded, petty, spiteful, angry, but yet also deeply loyal and devoted, Barbara is an utterly compelling character who carries the book with her to the very end.


  1. Thanks Martine, have always meant to read this, now will delve in with relish.

  2. I did think it was a good read... and so avoided the film because they changed it, apparently and I wanted to stick with the story as it was.

  3. Have you seen the movie? It is changed from the book, but it is still totally compelling. Judi Dench is amazing, amazingly perfect for the part.


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