Zoe Heller's second novel absorbs the reader not despite but because of its unsympathetic narrator. The scandal of the title is the affair between Sheba Hart, a pottery teacher at a dismal north London comprehensive, and Steven Connolly, her 15-year-old student. Sheba's story is narrated by her friend, the lonely, ornery Barbara Covett, whose repressed desire for her subject is the real centre of the novel.
The book opens with Barbara and Sheba hiding from the press in a borrowed house. Sheba's husband has thrown her out, she is being prosecuted for indecent assault on a minor, and the tabloids have descended on her with "hysterical prurience". In what she claims is an effort to defend Sheba, Barbara details Sheba's entanglement with Steven, from after-school art discussions to clandestine meetings on Hampstead Heath. Unsurprisingly, Steven has the romantic attention span of a teenage boy. He loses interest after a few months, crushing Sheba who, like Nabokov's Humbert, is besotted.
Barbara's declared intention is to "shed a little light on the true nature of [Sheba's] complex personality", but compared to Barbara, Sheba is as pretty and flimsy as an origami stork. It is Barbara who fascinates us, even as she annoys. Barbara is a curmudgeonly old bag who has alienated the entire world except her cat. But although she dislikes everybody, she is witty about it. Of a nervous male teacher's awkward conversational sallies, she says: "Talking to him is rather like attempting to converse with a school play."
Barbara is unbearably lonely and Heller depicts her solitude well: "The five little cushions on your sofa stay plumped and leaning at their same jaunty angle for months at a time unless you theatrically muss them." Heller excels at portraying what Willy Muller, the protagonist of her previous novel, Everything You Know, calls "the grey drear of lumpen Englishness": the world of cramped council flats, Lo-Price supermarkets, and grimy schools. The best passages in Everything You Know chronicle the downward spiral of the narrator's two daughters, replete with grubby detail. One of the finest scenes here is Barbara's agonised toilette in preparation for her first supper at Sheba's house. Her outfit is magnificently dowdy: a "spray-starched" white blouse and a grey suit from Bhs that had not "left its dry-cleaning wrapper since a staff function two years earlier".
Insofar as she is anything, Barbara is a lesbian; she is revolted by men and the most erotically charged moment in the novel is when she strokes the inside of Sheba's forearm. But Barbara is also a prude; she hastens to assure the reader that there is "nothing sexual" about the caress. Barbara's fascination with Sheba is in part mere envy; she is jealous of Sheba's beauty and of her cheerful, crowded home life. But Barbara (whose surname itself speaks of desperate longing) is also in love.
Arguably, the most satisfying stories are the ones where the protagonist learns something, as is the case in Everything You Know, in which Muller achieves a meagre redemption by visiting the child of his estranged daughter after her suicide. In Notes on a Scandal, Barbara seems to harden as the book progresses, but nonetheless there is something deeply convincing about the way she slowly achieves dominion over Sheba, going from coveting to controlling her, her restrained passion curdling into rage.
In a final confrontation with Sheba, Barbara hacks to pieces a sculpture Sheba has been making of a mother and child. This gesture is superfluous to the narrative and seems far too tidily symbolic: of the jealous destruction of Sheba's affair with Steven, of the fulfilled femininity that Barbara will never enjoy. It is a pity that this otherwise grimly realistic portrayal of loneliness and repression should at the end sacrifice realism for the sake of a neat finale.