The name Barbara Covett is revealing because Barbara covets Sheba and the upper-class lifestyle Sheba represents. Barbara is an unreliable narrator; her perceptions are inaccurate and reflect her own need to judge others and to control everyone around her. Additionally, Barbara has a savior complex and needs to be in rescuing roles. From the beginning of the novel, she wriggles her way into Sheba’s life by “helping” her control her students. She imagines a relationship with Sheba long before it ever materializes. Eventually, Barbara forces Sheba into a situation where Sheba is her dependent. Barbara's manipulative nature seems to be driven by extreme loneliness. Although Barbara is obsessed with having Sheba, she never considers Sheba’s feelings. Barbara just wants to possess her.
Sheba (Bathsheba) Hart
Sheba is an upper-class housewife who teaches pottery. Tall, with a dancer’s body and long, wild hair, she wears whispy skirts and sheer blouses, and she seems bohemian and artistic. Barbara, who essentially speaks for Sheba throughout the novel, sees her as fragile emotionally but artistic and intelligent. Sheba has an affair with a fifteen-year-old student but does not see it as wrong or harmful to anyone. In the end, Sheba looses everything because of the affair, and though she believes Barbara is a loyal friend, Barbara betrays her.
Steven is a student at St. George’s who has an affair with Sheba, his teacher. Steven is from a working-class family. He seems to be a typical teenaged boy with a crush on his teacher. According to Barbara, he has down-turned eyes that suggest a tragic mask. Steven has a party with other teens and kisses a girl there, which suggests that he is sexually active with multiple partners, and therefore does not feel emotionally involved with Sheba. Steven is not able to navigate the kind of adult relationship that Sheba wants from him. By the end of the novel, he is bored with her.
Richard is Sheba’s older husband and a professor. He is from the upper class and is immersed in his work. Barbara says he is pompous and condescending. He talks down to Sheba, but she does not seem to mind. Their relationship is more like that of a father and child.
Brian Bangs is the math teacher at St. George’s School. He is very nervous and has a high-pitched voice. His conversations always seem to be rehearsed. Barbara tells Bangs that all the staff know he has a crush on Sheba and that they laugh about it behind his back.
Sandy Pabblem is the headmaster at St. George’s School. He does not like Barbara because she was once critical of the school in a manuscript she was asked to write. Pabblem is a bully who likes to humiliate staff whenever he gets the chance. His greatest concern is that bad publicity might get out during his term as headmaster.
Notes on a Scandal
by Zoë Heller
244pp, Viking, £14.99
This is one of those disquieting novels that proffers its apparent theme then cunningly reveals itself to be about something else altogether. As its title and first pages suggest, its surface plot concerns a tabloid-pleasing sizzler of a scandal. Sheba Hart, a 41-year-old pottery teacher, arrives at a dreggy north London comp trailing the kind of tarnished glamour that sets the school's sex-starved males mildly abuzz. The suitor who presses his case first is 15-year-old Steven Connolly, a reasonably gormless lad with mild artistic proclivities, a cabbie father, and a home on an estate.
Within months of her arrival, Sheba, a mother of two and the apparently contented wife of a lecturer 20 years her senior, is copulating with the grammatically challenged adolescent on the art-room floor. So far, so dubiously titillating. Except it's not. Neither player tells the story in their own words, so instead of the anticipated wallow in dodgy Nabokovian delights, we're given a third party's somewhat matter-of-fact account of the charmless youth's entanglement with the unlikely school sexpot. Notes on a Scandal is therefore neither an essay in praise of older women, nor a Death in Venice-like reverie on the exquisite properties of the young male. We're held at one emotional remove throughout by the novel's narrator, and immediately told how the affair ends, effectively puncturing all potential for thrilling tension.
The novel is narrated by Barbara Covett, the self-appointed chronicler of Sheba's affair, whose alarming zeal when undertaking her task includes the use of gold stars to highlight seminal events and a timeline on graph paper. Nudging retirement age, Barbara, a colleague and friend of Sheba's, is a childless spinster who has taught history for several decades and lives in Archway with her cat. Barbara does not belong to the Nick Carraway school of narrators, and at first her attempt to codify the passions of others is clunkingly intrusive. But her voice as a "caretaker... defending the character of an alleged child-molester" insidiously takes over: the disturbing undercurrent that is Barbara's psyche wells up and drives the book more powerfully than the perfunctory little tale of underage sex that frames it. "This is not a story about me," she says. But of course it is.
As Sheba trips with barely a twinge of turmoil into a life of Hampstead Heath sex sessions, scuffles by the kiln and full-blown symptoms of infatuation (while simultaneously shepherding the other rebellious teen in her life, her 17-year-old daughter), guard dog Barbara is both slavering and snapping in the background as her fixation with Sheba takes on stalkerish hues. Painfully class-conscious, embittered and obsessive, she trails a history of social rejection that only stokes her determination to lap up every fragment of Sheba's full life. It is hard to decide whether her impulses stem from suppressed Sapphism, maternal frustration, or out-and-out lunacy. Eventually, all that simmering love-hatred leads to staggering betrayal and tabloid indignation.
This is a fascinating, brilliant, irritating novel, consistently defying definition by genre, literary worth, or even purpose. It's a quiet little read - yet horribly addictive. Underlying breathtakingly acute observations, and much fine writing, there's a lightness of sentiment that sporadically propels the novel into the realms of commercial pap. The main question that springs to mind is - why? Heller is a fine writer, fashioning her material with supreme confidence: the novel is funny, bleak, superbly structured, and full of the satisfyingly tight phrases that distinguish her journalism, but the fundamental point is somehow elusive. As her first novel, Everything You Know, showed, pathologically flawed protagonists are her forté, and the distortions of the unreliable narrator are intriguing; but Heller, for all her cold-eyed brilliance and psychological insights, has still to find her subject - has still to dig her pen deeper into everyday emotion.
Her description of "the drip drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude" is hauntingly moving: about to visit the strangely dated Sheba (purple shoes, tendrils of hair and other 1970s accoutrements), poor Barbara can live "on a crumb of anticipation for weeks at a time, but always in danger of crushing the waited-for event with the freight of my excessive hope". Sheba steadily and hilariously regresses, resorting to disguised teenage voices and late-night crouching beneath Connolly's bedroom, complete with its Grand Prix bedspread. By the end, in one glorious inversion, Barbara has become mother to the middle-aged "celebrity deviant", who now naps on a princess bed and eats nursery food. Truly tragicomic, this flimsy tale, this little psychological masterpiece, continues to disturb long after its last page.
· Joanna Briscoe is the author of Skin (Phoenix). Zoë Heller appears at the Guardian Hay festival today. See www.hayfestival.com.