Friday 31 December 2010

REVIEW: Notes on a Scandal, by Zoë Heller (4*)

(Viking, 2003)

Hmmmm. This is one of those books that would be wonderful for a book group - so much to discuss, so much to say! - but when it comes to writing a review, it's hard to know where to start. This extraordinarily accomplished novel focusses on two teachers, Barbara and Sheba, and their unlikely friendship. While Barbara is a retirement-age spinster, traditional and set in her ways, Sheba is a younger, free-spirited pottery teacher, new to the school and to the profession. The book is entirely told through Barbara, in the form of a kind of journal of her relationship with Sheba and the fall-out from her new friend's passionate affair with a student at the school.

Despite the scandal of the title relating to Sheba, her illicit relationship is almost a secondary concern, forming the centrepiece for the whole book yet never really feeling like its true heart. It's not glossed over exactly, but it's not as important as I'd expected. Instead, the novel is very much about Barbara. She is one of the most complex, unpleasant yet strangely sympathetic characters I have ever had the privilege to encounter. I think everyone knows someone like her. Her 'notes' on Sheba are almost sinister in their obsessive detail. Every conversation, every circumstance, is painstakingly transcribed, mulled over, analysed and ultimately reflected back onto herself in a sickening display of self-importance. She is the prying curtain-twitcher, the pompous grandmother, the unreasonable old lady that everybody loves to hate. Yet underneath all this, the reader gets a glimpse of a lonely and slightly bitter woman who is, at some level, very much aware of her own faults, even as she tries to deflect them away in blind denial. There is a self-pity and naïvety underlying everything she 'writes' that makes it hard to truly dislike her as a character, even as the reader instinctively shies away from her. She is what makes the novel so compelling yet so strangely painful to read.

I can't believe it's taken me so long to finally read this book. It's not as easy a read as it seems on the surface, with its compulsive attention to detail and thought-provoking themes, and it's definitely not a book that leaves you with a smile on your face and a sense of having really enjoyed it - yet it is absolutely superb in its execution and deserves every ounce of praise that has been flung its way. And on a personal note, reading it at last means I can finally watch the movie adaptation, which has been sitting in its cellophane for months! Highly recommended.

  • "I have never been a big fan of firework displays.  All that brightness falling, the sad, smoke smell, the finale that is never quite as magnificent as it should be...  Yet appreciating fireworks is one of those things by which one is judged on one's child-like delight in life.  It is perfectly acceptable to hate the circus.  But to admit that one finds fireworks tiresome is to render oneself a pariah."
  • "People like Sheba think that they know what it's like to be lonely.  They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new...  But about the drip drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing.  They don't know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette.  Or to sit in a darkened flat on Halloween night, because you can't bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters.  Or to have the librarian smile pityingly and say, 'Goodness, you're a quick reader!' when you bring back seven books, read from cover to cover, a week after taking them out.  They don't know what it is to be so chronically untouched that the accidental brush of a bus conductor's hand on your shoulder sends a jolt of longing straight to your groin.  I have sat on park benches and tubes and schoolroom chairs, feeling the great store of unused, objectless love sitting in my belly like a stone until I was sure I would cry out and fall, flailing, to the ground.  About all of this, Sheba and her like have no clue."
  • "There are certainly people in whom you can detect the seeds of madness - seeds that have remained dormant only because the people in question have lived relatively comfortable, middle-class lives.  They function perfectly well in the world, but you can imagine, given a nasty parent, or a prolonged bout of unemployment, how their potential for craziness might have been realized - how their seeds might have sprouted little green shoots of weirdness."
Source: I THINK I bought this book in a charity shop.  I don't remember, it was so long ago!