Notes on a Scandal

When I was tidying up last week I found this overlooked book that should have been in the review roundup.

Notes on a Scandal
Zoe Heller
(Penguin, 2004)

A teacher, Barbara Covett, gets drawn in when a colleague, Sheba Hart, is accused of having sex with a pupil.

This novella is in the first person singular, and is delightfully creepy. The waspish comments of the narrator, a frustrated history teacher approaching retirement, are entertainingly prim. The range of teachers at an inner city comprehensive are recognizable stereotypes that she precisely lampoons.

As the plot unfurls, Barbara’s obsession with ‘protecting’ Sheba becomes more unhealthy than Sheba’s madness in having an affair with a pupil. Her desperate desire for a special friend mirrors that of the teenage girls she teaches, although she would never demean herself with such a comparison. The hints of a backstory, involving a private school in Scotland and a previous scandal that meant Barbara had to move to a North London comprehensive, evoke The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In another echo, Sheba doesn’t realise who betrays her.

The prose is crisp, sharply capturing a neat, waspish and thoroughly nasty mind. It makes you collude with Barbara by drawing you in with wit and humour at the start. So when the cracks start, the disgust you feel is all the stronger for having liked her.

Thoroughly recommended.

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