Monday, June 08, 2009

Zoë Heller: Notes on a Scandal

This book is in many ways better than The Believers, the first Heller I read. It's tighter, tenser, more succinct. Very much a thriller, actually, not that anything particularly violent happens. It becomes a thriller thanks to the narrator, Barbara. Barbara is the friend and confidante of Sheba, the forty-something pottery teacher who has had an affair with a fifteen-year-old pupil. When we enter the story Barbara is living with and caring for a devastated Sheba. She talks about the hounding by journalists, how they write lies and how they exaggerate. She knows the truth, because Sheba has told her everything. So she tells the story of how Sheba started working at the school, how Barbara immediately sensed that here was a kindred spirit, and how Barbara gradually makes herself Sheba's closest friend. Subtly we become aware that Barbara isn't just a normal friend. To remember everything that has happened, she writes, she has made a timeline and marked important events with little gold star stickers. That's our first clue to Barbara's oddness. As the story continues there are more, but since it's Barbara's story the incidents aren't dwelt on, just matter-of-factedly reported. It's very well done. Slowly we learn just how sinister Barbara's desire to be a BFF, to be needed and wanted and loved, can be.

Ironically (or something), one of the reviews quoted on the first couple of pages states that this novel "shares many qualities with Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day." I seem to be swimming in a regular duck pond lately.

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