Thursday, 26 January 2012

Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

The unreliable narrator is a useful device in fiction. The haziness that descends over the novel’s events gives plenty of scope for interpretation, and the principal character themselves is often gloriously deluded in the bargain, which is certainly the case with Barbara Covett, a former history teacher in her sixties who is now writing her account of a colleague’s affair with an underage boy.

She begins her notes explaining that she and another former teacher, Sheba Hart, are temporarily living in the house of Sheba’s brother while he is away, and in circumstances somewhat more straightened than Sheba is used to:

I don’t cook anything fancy. Sheba’s appetite isn’t up to much and I’ve never been one for sauces. We eat nursery food mainly. Beans on toast, Welsh rarebit, fish fingers. Sheba leans against the oven and watches me while I work. At a certain point, she usually asks for wine. I have tried to get her to wait until she’s eaten something, but she gets very scratchy when I do that, so these days I tend to give in straightaway and pour her a small glass from the carton in the fridge. You choose your battles. Sheba is a bit of snob about drink and she keeps whining at me to get a grander sort. Something in a bottle, at least, she says. But I continue to buy the cartons. We are on a tight budget these days. And for all her carping, Sheba doesn’t seem to have too much trouble knocking back the cheap stuff.

Barbara then goes on to relate what happened at a comprehensive school where they both taught, how Sheba, a newly started pottery teacher, started an affair with a fifteen-year-old student, destroying her marriage, her career and leading to an impending court case.

Barbara has taken a shine to Sheba from the start, and singles her out as a friend. Sheba confides in Barbara that a boy, Steven Connolly, has made a pass at her, and Barbara tells her in no uncertain terms to put the kibosh on any designs he has. Unfortunately, Sheba finds herself smitten, and an affair begins. There are liaisons al fresco on Hampstead Heath, furtive couplings behind the kiln in her pottery studio, and even, on a couple of occasions, something that might even be called a ‘date’:

At the restaurant in Hammersmith, Connolly apparently requested a sickly cocktail to go with his curry. Sheba suggested he have a soft drink instead, or a lager, but he was insistent: he wanted his rum and Coke. She did not press the matter. She could hardly hector the boy about the dangers of strong drink, she felt, when she was about to take him off the park for sex.

Of course, nothing lasts forever, but the fickleness of teenage boys is particularly notable. Connolly eventually gets bored with Sheba. Sadly, Sheba feels different about the matter and gets distinctly clingy. While her home life is collapsing around her, Connolly is going to parties, doing the usual adolescent stuff:

Sheba had tried to remain cool, but she had kept picturing him at the party, drinking his rum and Coke from a plastic cup, dancing with peachy-skinned girls in slutty dresses.

Meanwhile, Barbara is slowly inveigling herself more and more into Sheba’s life. She decides that Sheba is her best friend now, and when she’s rejected in favour of Connolly, she reacts by hinting to another teacher that Sheba has an unhealthy interest in year 11 boys...

While Sheba spends one last oblivious Christmas and New Year with her family and Sheba sits at home with a full glass and a book (I bought in a bottle of sherry and spent the evening getting slightly sozzled while re-reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion) the word finally gets out, and Sheba’s life is about to spiral into scandal and catastrophe.

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