Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

Notes on a ScandalShortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003, ‘Notes on a Scandal’ by Zoe Heller is a tightly-written psychological thriller driven almost entirely by the characters rather than the actual events.  The story is told retrospectively from the point of view of Barbara Covett, a History teacher at a North London comprehensive school.  Lonely and nearing retirement, she forms a friendship with a new pottery teacher, Sheba Hart.  However, Sheba’s affair with one of her fifteen-year-old male pupils has far-reaching consequences for everyone, especially Barbara.

As regular readers of my blog will know, I love unreliable narrators and Barbara is a particularly spectacular one.  Although she might seem reasonably trustworthy at first, it is only as events start to unfold that the scale of her loneliness, obsession and bitterness is gradually revealed to the reader.  Indeed, it eventually becomes clear that the story isn’t really about Sheba’s scandalous affair with a pupil at all, or even the resulting fallout. The real story is, in fact, all about Barbara who inadvertently reveals more than she probably intends to. There are times particularly in the second half of the story where the reader may feel simultaneously sympathetic and yet also faintly repulsed by her.  Barbara is an intriguing character, and while I haven’t yet seen the widely acclaimed film version of the novel, Judi Dench seems like a very inspired casting choice for the role.

Overall, ‘Notes on a Scandal’ is uncomfortable but compulsive reading which I found to be wholly absorbing.  Heller paces the story brilliantly and makes perceptive and often painfully astute observations about human interaction and jealousy. Her writing both in terms of her precise way with words as well as character development is exceptionally skilled.  The result is that ‘Notes on a Scandal’ is sometimes funny and often tragic but most of all, it is very, very sinister.


Filed under Books

19 responses to “Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

  1. This is my type of book. Can’t wait to read this one – thanks for the recommendation!


  2. Oh I simply loved reading this book, every moment of it. Great review!


  3. Wow this sounds like a really interesting read. Will definitely have to check it out. I too like books with unreliable narrators. I don’t think it would be much fun if the narrators were reliable. Thanks for the intriguing review!


  4. I loved this book, I think it is great. The film is quite good too 🙂 and I don’t often like watching a film if I’ve read the book.


  5. I haven’t seen the movie either, but I think I will check this book out. I would have “liked” this article, but the like icon just kept loading while I was visiting your site.


  6. I’ve been meaning to read this for ages. I love unreliable narrators and hear great things about this book.


  7. It’s on my TBR list now. Thanks 😀


  8. read this after seeing half of the film. i was 17 perhaps at the time so it was definitely an eye opener! barbara was a repulsive narrator yes and unreliable… great review! 🙂


  9. Thanks for the introduction – sounds riveting. Added high on my reading list.


  10. Quite agree, excellent book and also excellent film, Judi Dench simply goes for it and produces a very sinister character. Obviously the film is NOT the book so there is quite a lot missing from the nuanced nature of the writing, but the build up is exquisitely slow and agonising to watch. And if you enjoyed that you might also enjoy Eleanor Catton’s first novel The Rehearsal. Similar but very different.


  11. I started this at my parents’ house – and as you say, it is uncomfortable reading so I never rushed to finish it. The two female characters were really strongly defined, which I admired. Both very self absorbed which I am sure will lead to plot fireworks! You’ve reminded me that this is a book I must get back to some time.


  12. The film was well done – anything with Judi Dench is worth seeing – but I found it very disturbing. Now that I’ve read your post I’ll get the book and read it and pick up on the undercurrents that don’t get shown in a movie.


  13. Notes on a Scandal is terrific piece of writing, but it leaves a really unpleasant taste on the mouth.


  14. sylviemarieheroux

    I absolutely loved the movie and I had no idea it was based on a novel. Now I feel like reading it too.


  15. I didn’t read the book but watched the movie adaptation with the amazing Cate Blanchett and LOVED it. I think it deals with some themes we find violent and unpleasant and explores why we see them that way. An amazing piece, but as they mention on the comments, it leaves an unpleasant taste on the mouth.


  16. This was a case of enjoying the film more than the book – something I rarely admit to! I feel that there were loose ends left untied unsatisfactorily in the novel which were dealt with comprehensively in the film – and Dench’s performance was superb, fleshing out the inherent evil in the character.


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