Undoubtedly many of you will remember this novel. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2003 and then made into a film starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench in 2006. I felt certain I hadn’t read it before but somehow, as I turned the pages, it was as if the story were coming from a familiar place even though I hadn’t seen the film.
Though the scandal is salacious and as sordid and mundane as one might expect – an affair between a female teacher and a fifteen-year-old; people behaving thoughtlessly, living through the mists of their own egos and creating drama and intimacy out of desperation – the real pleasure is in Barbara’s first person, witness account.
Barbara has been teaching for decades and is at the brink of retirement. She is unmarried, without children, her only living family a sister who is a Seventh Day Adventist and who tolerates Barbara at best. Barbara does have a cat as a companion but seems to have spent most of her adult years surviving on a series of female friendships that never quite match up to Barbara’s hopes. They are short-lived, intense and end in betrayal, at least as far as Barbara is concerned.
When Sheba turns up at Barbara’s school as the new pottery teacher – something which saddened me because I couldn’t imagine any state school being able to afford a pottery teacher today and that this could come to pass thirteen years after the book was published is very sad indeed – Barbara is instantly keen to offer her guidance as an experienced teacher and friend. Though their friendship takes some time to get going, eventually Barbara slips into Sheba’s upper-middle class life with ease. They take her into their home, share family suppers and celebrations, let her muddle into their orchestrated chaos.
Slowly but surely Barbara positions herself as Sheba’s only loyal friend. This, and the disparity of the class system, is really what the novel is about and it is fiendishly clever, especially as we have no reason to trust Barbara’s account. Her harsh and rather barbed account is filled with longing and some painfully astute insights into parenting, love and mourning.
Notes on a Scandal is brilliant for its depiction of the confused workings of human morality. Sheba is rather pathetic and she does abuse her power, but she isn’t easily cast into the role of sexual predator or child-molester, though that is what she becomes. She is susceptible to the attention of others, seeks self-assurance in the drama of teenage emotion that makes her not much more than an adolescent herself. She fails to take the responsibility of adulthood and when we see her left with only Barbara for company, it is hard to sympathise with her. This, of course, is what Barbara has been seeking all along: to subjugate Sheba, to make her her own.
I really enjoyed Notes on a Scandal and if you haven’t read it, and feel like a light but challenging read, this is it. Next week I’m reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.