Notes on a Scandal
"Schoolteacher Barbara Covett has led a solitary life until Sheba Hart, the new art teacher at St. George's, befriends her. But even as their relationship develops, so too does another: Sheba has begun an illicit affair with an underage male student. When the scandal turns into a media circus, Barbara decides to write an account in her friend's defense—and ends up revealing not only Sheba's secrets, but also her own."
Wow…I did not expect this when I picked this one up. I found this book in a charity shop in one of those mystery book offers where they wrap a book in brown paper and give you a few plot points and you can take a gamble on trying something new.
The package this book came in bore the inscription “Fiction – Teachers and pupils – loyalty and treachery – dark and compelling – tragicomic”. I found the inscription very intriguing but was fairly disappointed to find a bland looking movie poster on the cover when I opened the package.
This may well be the perfect example of why not to judge a book by its cover though as this book was fantastic.
The book takes what is usually a completely black and white story, that of a teacher having a sexual relationship with one of her pupils, and paints it entirely in shades of grey.
Nothing in the book is simple, no character two dimensional, everything is deeply layered and it’s difficult to ultimately decide who is in the wrong throughout the book.
Despite what the mainstream media, movies, tv, novels and newspapers might tell you, sex is complicated and I’ve never seen a book show that better than this one.
Sheba Hart, the teacher in the middle of the scandal does the despicable act of not only having sex with her student, but an underage one at that, A fifteen year old boy. However, the book is quick to point out that sex with a fifteen year old is only taboo because our society says so, pointing out many societies both past and present where a fifteen year old would already be considered a man well into the age of sexual maturity.
Indeed Connolly, the student in question, is already sexually experienced and is in many ways the instigator and dominant party in the relationship. He knows what he’s doing just as much as Sheba does and it’s hard to see him simply as a victim. Similarly it’s difficult to see Sheba as the one in the wrong in this relationship. Both parties fit equally into both roles.
This murkiness extends to all characters in the novel. Barbara, the main character and narrator takes Sheba under her wing when the scandal breaks. She cares for her when nobody else will though her motives are hardly pure. Again, she’s manipulative of Sheba, loving the control she can exert over her, preparing her meals, organizing her life, yet she’s also a victim. She’s extremely lonely, she needs Sheba and because of that, Sheba is in many ways the dominant partner in the relationship for if she were to leave, Barbara would break. There’s also a sense, though never expressly said, that Barbara may harbour feelings of a more romantic nature towards Sheba and her repressed lesbianism just confuses the issue even more.
I’m a huge fan of novels which have no interest in creating likeable characters and that’s definitely the case here. Every character is detestable, even minor characters like the chummy but dictatorial school headmaster or Sheba’s pretentious husband, all of them fight for the title of least likable character but not only are they hateable, they’re also all defendable.
They might each be loathsome but you can understand every characters motive, the other side of the coin, you can see that every character is doing what they believe to be the right thing.
Zoë Heller has created a magnificent story from a subject matter that could have so easily been two dimensional and preachy. She has avoided all these pitfalls and created a dense novel which kept me thinking long after I put it down. It asks many questions, gives no clear answers and shows that there’s no such thing as a clear cut issue. In reality, such things are far more complicated.