Shortlisted 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.