Review: Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

I started reading this on the train back from London and I think that if I’d started it on the way down I would have finished it in one day.

The subject of the book is a teacher’s affair with one of her pupils. Certainly scandalous but it also creates a lot of room for exploration of how society judges such a relationship and why. The novel is narrated by Barbara, the older friend of Sheba, the teacher in question, but she too becomes embroiled in the scandal when she decides to defend Sheba. I really appreciated the completeness of Barbara’s character – she was an excellent persona for the narrator. She isn’t the most likeable but she is relatable and it is easy to see the reasons behind some of her behaviour. Although the book is evidently centred around Sheba and the teacher-pupil relationship, you get a surprisingly intimate look into Barbara’s life too and I liked the duality that this gave the story.

Barbara is a pretty interesting character herself and I liked how Heller creates a sort of smoke-screen with the main plot so that at first you don’t quite realise the complexity of her character. Barbara does quite a lot of self-analysis yet it wasn’t until after I’d finished the novel that I began thinking more carefully about her character: why is it that she doesn’t get on with the other teachers? What really happened with her friendship with Jennifer? Why is she so keen to be involved in Sheba’s family dramas when there is no real reason for her to be? There is something a little predatory in her distanced analysis and calculated behaviour and a little too much of the stereotype of a spinster which creates a bit of mystery. I personally found the ending quite sinister, particularly the last line, “she knows, by now, not to go too far without me.” Maybe I’ve read too much into it, I don’t know, but there seemed to be something quite malicious there!

There is also a hefty amount of criticism of the British tabloid newspapers which I liked because it’s so true. The scandal, the sanctimony, the prurience. The lies and made-up stories. A decade after this book was published and nothing has changed there.

The novel definitely addresses some really interesting themes with the teacher-student relationship. Firstly the age of consent and whether this age is merely arbitrary. You can certainly argue that this age has changed over time and varies even now depending on which national border you cross. Without Connelly’s viewpoint (the student) it’s quite difficult to tell how much of the affair was of his design or whether he was manipulated by Sheba. Is he purely an innocent in this or should his own role be taken into account? Perhaps it is neither of these options or maybe both?

With this issue follows the question of gender. In cases like this, the two labels ‘predator’ and ‘victim’ are usually thrown about at some point but there is often a discrepancy in the way that the public judges the sexual ‘misbehaviour’ of men and women. If the minor in question was a girl and the teacher a man would the novel be able to so deftly explore these issues? Would I have already made some biased judgements on the characters? As much as I wish this weren’t the case, I think perhaps I would have. I think it is excellent that the novel holds up such a mirror to prejudice and makes me reconsider my way of thinking.

Barbara addresses the gender discrepancy when she points out:

Oh, the official response to Sheba is very severe. They all say she has committed a ‘despicable’ crime. But behind their hands, they’re smirking … Male sex offenders are never funny. They get all the righteous rage … which is odd really, given that paler versions of their despised urges are so ubiquitous, so cheerfully sanctioned, in the male population at large.

The question of innocence and guilt is never truly resolved. Sheba evidently comes to have real feelings for Connelly but is it really love? Or desperation to live a missed youth? When asked, Connelly only offers, “well I fancied her, didn’t I?”, yet later his mother says that he breaks down and cries. A flippant remark contrasted with the suggestion of real trauma – which do we believe?

The novel provokes complicated feelings of sympathy and judgement with all the characters, sometimes simultaneously. It is an excellent portrayal of human impulses and ultimate fallibility.


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