Notes on a Scandal By Zoë Heller

Beware of lonely, cat-loving females and philanthropists in floaty skirts
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The Independent Culture

Reviewers and authors are generally sent quite a few books in the course of a week or so. These will be added to an ever-growing pile, usually rather hopefully called "To Be Read". It is a rare event indeed that a book arrives, you take it out of the envelope and find you have finished it by the next morning. That is what happened with this novel. The pace didn't trail off somewhere around the beginning of the second third (as so often happens), or become clogged around the middle. It is probably the most gripping book I have read so far this year.

The "scandal" of the title is one that has become familiar over the last couple of years. A female pottery teacher, Sheba, is caught having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old male pupil, Connolly. Sheba is a rather naïve woman who, a little late in life, has taken up her first teaching post at a London comprehensive, St George's. Her comfortable, haphazard middle-class family life, full of Easter egg hunts and impromptu pasta suppers, is shattered by the affair: its cosiness is uncomfortably juxtaposed with scenes of illicit sex in classrooms, where Connolly asks, "Miss, is it all right if I come in you, Miss?"

That this story is narrated by Sheba's lonely, interfering colleague Barbara adds very many more dimensions to it. Barbara is a St George's veteran, with strict views on the sort of floaty-skirt philanthropy practised by new teachers like Sheba. "Many of the younger teachers harbour secret hopes of 'making a difference'. They have all seen the American films in which lovely young women tame inner city thugs with recitations of Dylan Thomas. They too want to conquer their little charges' hearts with poetry and compassion. When I was at teacher training college there was none of this sort of thing... Perhaps we were lacking in idealism. But then it strikes me as not coincidental that in the same period that pedagogical ambitions have become so inflated and grandiose, the standards of basic literacy and numeracy have declined."

Barbara is the sort of woman for whom the small details of life take on extra significance: weekends are built on one trip to the launderette, and any kind of social event will be planned for hours, if not days, in advance. Her only real companion is her cat. Having decided to befriend Sheba, she guards this friendship jealously, although it is clear that her devotion is not returned at quite the same level. What is interesting about Barbara's narration is not so much that it is particularly unreliable - she does let us read between the lines, after all - but that it tells her story rather than Sheba's. Yes; these are notes on the scandal of Sheba's illegal affair, but the very act of compiling notes creates a narrative about the compiler. You tell a story: you take the starring role. This has interesting implications.

As well as having well-developed themes around friendship, jealousy, family and female sexuality, this is a novel about the relativity of life. When Barbara's cat becomes ill and she goes to Sheba for support, she finds Sheba obsessed with her lover instead. The minutiae of some people's lives are the very tragic definition of others'. And, although this has something of the flavour of a character-driven psychological thriller, Heller is too good at drawing her characters for you to feel anything other than empathy for all of them.