Heller, Zoe

Review: “Notes on a Scandal” by Zoe Heller

This dark, sinister tale is a recollection of a student-teacher affair. Barbara Covett, a lonely spinster in her sixties, is taken away by the new Pottery teacher, Sheba Hart, at St. George’s comprehensive school in London. Barbara’s notes detail, rather obsessively, the time when she first set sight on Sheba, their first interaction, their first outing, their first touch. As time goes on, Barbara worms her way into Sheba’s life and elects herself as Sheba’s rock and primary confidante. Sheba, a married mother of two, embarks on an affair with Steven Connolly, a year 11 student.

Notes is more of a tale of friendship than the scandalous affair and more of a study of Barbara than Sheba. A lonely outsider Barbara maintains the typical steely external armour but inside she is desperately lonely and maintains a grudge against society, having been scorned by friends and lovers throughout her life. The scenes depicting Barbara’s dying cat, Portia, is telling of Barbara’s isolation. The obsessive, sinister, and slightly mad nature of Barbara is also slyly revealed by Heller, particularly in the passage where Barbara describes the seeds of madness in certain people during her date with Bangs, and her admission to rubbing Portia’s nose in her own filth during the times when she didn’t make it to her litter box.

As the illicit affair reaches its climax (no pun intended!) Sheba increasingly relies on Barbara. Sheba naivety towards the affair and her seemingly innocent friendship draws her down as she becomes entangled in Barbara’s web.

The story was a great read and, despite the subject matter, it is also a surprisingly funny read. There were numerous times where I snickered or laughed out loud on the train. The characters are well drawn despite times where Sheba’s behaviour was almost unbelievable, at how blind she was. The sub-themes are contemporary covering issues of media coverage, tabloid newspapers and trashy magazines, and politics and bureaucratic and political red tape in the education system.