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Notes on a Scandal - Zoe Heller

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

FIRST let me say I haven’t seen the film so when I began reading Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal it was with an open mind. However, I was aware that Dame Judi Dench played history teacher Barbara Covett whose notes form the substance of the story. Consequently, as I read, it was Dame Judi’s voice I heard.

Set in late 1990s London, Notes on a Scandal chronicles the relationship between Covett and new pottery teacher Sheba Hart who, it quickly transpires, has been having an affair with one of her young pupils, Steven Connolly.

Sheba is, in fact, married (to an older man as it turns out), has two children who are being educated privately – a far cry from the less than reputable comprehensive where she and Barbara teach – and lives in a ‘ginormous house’ in Highgate. Barbara, on the other hand, is a spinster nearing retirement, living in humble accomodation with only her cat Portia for company. A sad existence…

But Barbara is instantly drawn to Sheba and insidiously worms her way into the younger woman’s affections, eventually becoming her friend and confidant. Thus she becomes privy to Sheba’s affair. However, behind Barbara’s facade of friendship, lies obsession and duplicity.

Notes on a Scandal is not only written in an imaginative and eloquent prose but with an irresistible flair that keeps pages turning. However, hard as it sometimes is, readers should resist the urge to pursue the story’s conclusion but instead, savour every delightful moment.

Mrs Taylor’s face, for example (for the record, Mrs Taylor is Sheba’s intellectually snobbish mother), ‘was framed by a Joan-of-Arc pudding bowl’ – quite the rage, I seem to remember! – or Mrs Connolly’s ‘tipsy hat’ which, coming as it does in the heat of a physical confrontation between Steven’s mother and Sheba’s husband Richard, is a triumph of ingenuity.

The characters too are well drawn, although I have to say, I found none particularly likeable. As for Barbara and Sheba, I would go so far as to say they probably deserved each other.

Also clever are the veiled allusions to Barbara’s sexuality, her preoccupation with Sheba’s physical attributes – her ‘long arms’, ‘her amazing lashes lapping like fronds at her cheeks’ – the manner in which she describes taking Sheba ‘very gently in my arms’, the use of the word ‘darling’......

My only disappointment was the ending which, I’m told, is different from the film’s. I would have preferred to see Sheba walk away but Heller didn’t see fit to give her the strength of character for even that. And the outcome of the trial we can only surmise – a pity. But don’t let this put you off. Notes on a Scandal is as addictive as it is stylish and a real treat for the discerning reader.

Read our review of the film