Review: Notes on a Scandal [What Was She Thinking] by Zoë Heller


Schoolteacher Barbara Covett has led a solitary life until Sheba Hart, the new art teacher at St. George’s, befriends her. But even as their relationship develops, so too does another: Sheba has begun an illicit affair with an underage male student. When the scandal turns into a media circus, Barbara decides to write an account in her friend’s defense–and ends up revealing not only Sheba’s secrets, but also her own.


Another novel in what I’m tentatively labeling the “pedophilia genre,” Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal reads much less perverse than previous entries in the genre mostly because Heller shifts the focus from the relationship between the adult sexual deviant and his or her child lover to the relationship between the adult deviant and her older, possibly also deviant friend.

The tone here is sanitized, careful. It’s narrated by Barbara, a senior teacher at a London school where she befriends Sheba, a younger teacher who meets Connolly, a fifth-year schoolboy who becomes her lover. Barbara is erudite and constructs her reconstruction of the events almost as if she is writing a British comedy of manners. Explicitness is explicitly ignored, recounted briefly and factually to provide a narrative frame but nothing more. In fact the most libidinous moments occur not between Sheba and her boy nymphet but between her and Barbara.

There’s also just something decidedly less sinister about a female criminal. We are more likely to laugh and jeer at a woman who breaks the laws of sexual consent than we are to curse and spit at her. Is it because women are more prone to seek love? Although the book is subtitled What Was She Thinking, it’s difficult to say what Sheba was thinking, her thoughts being filtered through Barbara’s recollections and biases. But there is a strong averral that Sheba was in actual, unadulterated, genuine love with Connolly, which shouldn’t complicate matters but seemingly does. Sheba becomes a pitiful character, someone to sympathize with even as she awaits her trial for obvious wrongdoing.

And in that unwanted but undeniably sparked sympathy lies the question: do books that discuss the intimate lives of pedophiles glamorize them? I.e., for all of its eponymous hubbub, Lolita is a book about Humbert Humbert. Notes on a Scandal accomplishes an even weirder trick: it’s not about Connolly, the 16 year old boy lover; it’s not about Sheba, his 40-something-year-old pottery teacher and lover; it’s about Barbara, Sheba’s senior citizen friend, confidante, and keeper. In adding a third level of displacement from the real victim, Heller suggests that Sheba may be just another victim. The age difference between Sheba and Barbara is nigh equivalent to that of Sheba and Connolly. And despite the absence of sexual perversion in their relationship and the admittance that they are both fully acting adults, it’s just as controlling, one-sided, and desperate.

Who is the victim here? Connolly? Sheba? Barbara? Connolly is excused by pleading immaturity. Sheba knows her relationship with Connolly is forbidden but is helpless before her own vast emptiness. So Heller forces us to ponder: can the guilty also be victims? Is prey and predator but a human imposed dichotomy? Criminalize Sheba, punish her, chain her we must; but blame her gently, softly, with a kindness that comes from being happy and knowing better. We are left then to assign most of our rage to Barbara, Sheba’s jailer if Sheba were wise enough to see the lock and key. If we strain our eyes, we can see how Barbara might be just another victim in a long chain of victims, of prey and predator, of people who hurt others because they are hurt themselves. But there is no god hovering above Barbara manipulating her strings. We can imagine one, of course: a vicious mother, a bygone lover, a society that condemns spinsterhood but condemns lesbian relationships even more vehemently. Heller hasn’t provided a perpetrator to Barbara’s victimhood, however, so the blame rests there, with the oldest, the wisest, and the loneliest.

Books like Notes on a Scandal complicate issues that we don’t want to see as complicated. They interrogate questions that we don’t want asked and tell us that victims are not isolated, even in black and white crimes like an adult sleeping with a minor. Open your eyes to the chains of guilt but know that the blame will always and must always come to rest in one place and on one person.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood


“Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge”

More than fifty years on, Iris Chase is remembering Laura’s mysterious death. And so begins an extraordinary and compelling story of two sisters and their secrets. Set against a panoramic backdrop of twentieth-century history, The Blind Assassin is an epic tale of memory, intrigue and betrayal…


If a book’s quality can be judged by my desire to write an alternative ending for it, thenThe Blind Assassin is a book of sterling quality. Because I want to write pages and pages where certain things that happen in this book simply don’t happen. I want so badly for it to end differently, yet I love it so much because of how it does end.

In The Blind Assassin Margaret Atwood is exploring an epic subject that’s also a little bit dangerous: sisterhood. Is there a darker, more confounding type of relationship in the world? For all the complicated tragedies they’ve inspired, love stories are simple: they’re based on giving and taking—you give love, I take it; I give love, you take it; and we cross our fingers that the exchange is equal. But a sister story is based on sharing. Sisters share parents and friends, a home and often a room, arms, legs, and faces—though cruelly one will always be prettier than the other, and of course, desires and secrets.

One day the sharing must stop, however, and what will happen then? In The Blind Assassin tragedy happens, tragedy of the tricky, unassuming type that isn’t obviously tragic until it is. The narrator Iris presents her and her sister Laura’s tragedy in four windows. Frame One is a sci-fi story about a blind assassin, a mute priestess, and a destroyed kingdom; Frame Two is a published novel including Frame One’s sci-fi story recounted by two clandestine lovers; Frame Three features the memoirs of Iris in which she mostly recounts how she and Laura grew up and how The Blind Assassin (the novel in Frame Two) came to be published after Laura’s suicide; Frame Four discusses Iris’s present life as an old, regretful woman. It sounds like a complex hodgepodge, which it is, but each frame references the others to complete the whole wonderful tragic thing. Frame Four is tedious and occasionally weighs down the narrative, but it remains necessary regardless.

If sisterhood is about sharing, it is obvious from the beginning that something went very wrong in the sisterhood of Iris and Laura Chase. Where they once shared life, they no longer do, Laura having left Iris in the land of the living after her suicide at age 25. The entire book, four frames and all, explains, slowly and subtly, how the relationship between these two sisters splintered until it broke, utterly and completely.

Men are involved, of course. How could they not be, in the gilded but sequestered halls of the early 20th Century where a woman lacked any skills other than her ability to be married? Atwood is brilliant at showing how constrained and choiceless poor Laura and Iris are. Their only salvation from this constraint lies with each other, but jealousy and misunderstanding run deep and destructive between the sisters.

The title The Blind Assassin is interesting and multifunctional. There’s a character who is blind and assassin in the sci-fi tale, which eponymously endows Laura’s novel The Blind Assassin, and then there’s the actual novel, written by Margaret Atwood, which she has titled The Blind Assassin. Evidently it’s important. I think it means that we become assassins if we’re blind. If we choose or even simply fail to see what is happening around us, we become unintentional killers, maiming blindly yet temporarily. Our victims disappear but we will remain, alive and unfortunately restored to sight. The living, like Iris, are left, eyes wide open, forever gazing at the broken path behind them.

4.5 out of 5 stars