Friday, 23 August 2013

Book Review: Notes On A Scandal - Zoe Heller

Synopsis - From the first day that the beguiling Sheba Hart joins the staff of St George's, history teacher Barbara Cowell is convinced that she has found a kindred spirit.  Barbara's loyalty to her new friend is passionate and unstinting and when Sheba is discovering to be having an illicit affair with one of her younger pupils, Barbara quickly elects herself as Sheba's chief defender.  But all is not as it seems in this dark story and as Sheba will soon discover, a friend can be just as treacherous as any lover.

Review - Another well overdue book from my TBR and I have to ask myself why it took me so long to pick it up.  I haven't seen the film version but I do know it stars Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench.  And on reading Barbara's narrative I could 'hear' Judi Dench's voice in my head.

I really enjoyed this book, well written with some great descriptions.  I particularly liked the use of the word 'incubus' when an angry Sheba told Barbara what her husband had said about her.  That word stuck with me, a strong accusation but perhaps correct to an extent.  The author leaves it up to the reader to decide what the outcome of the situation will be.  Both with the impending court case and the future of Barbara and Sheba's friendship.

Let's look at Barbara first: Here is a woman who worms her way into the life of those she presumes to be weak.  A predator, who dominates and in a less obvious way bullies.  Someone who becomes a subversive friend, attaches like a leech before you realise that you really want to get rid of them.  Can you identify with that?  I'm sure you can from somewhere in your life.  We get a glimpse of this Barbara when she refers to her previous friendship with Jenny who cuts her out completely.  Barbara is hurt but doesn't see what she is doing in these relationships, smothering her friends.  A spinster teacher with no external interests in life other than her cat.

Moving on to Sheba: Sheba has gone into teaching later in life after bringing up her family.  She has a trying relationship with her mother and is the daughter of a renowned father.  Sheba married young, much to her mother's upset but adding to this upset by marrying a man much older than herself.  Her husband is wrapped up in his own career and you are left with the view that Sheba feels a tad neglected.  She starts her new teaching post and has trouble holding the classes under control.  She is shown some interest by a younger pupil, is flattered and responds to his charms.  What struck me about Sheba is her lack of self control.  She knew her actions were wrong but she did nothing to put a stop to it or made half hearted attempts in the beginning.  We see her as weak and she is certainly in the eyes of Barbara.  Yet, Sheba does have strengths.

I am not sure if I want to see the film.  More often than not, film adaptations do not live up to the written word.  The storyline is uncomfortable as it discusses abuse of trust, sexual relationship between teacher and pupil, friendship, marriage and much more.  Blanchett and Dench are both formidable actresses and I am sure gave their roles justice.

You may not like the subject matter but the book is well worth reading and I highly recommend it.  4*

ISBN 0-141-01225-0

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