Notes on a scandal was published in 2003 and nominated for the Man Booker in the same year. Also it was turned into a movie in 2006. One of the most dramatic and alluding lines of the novel is “Sheba and I had no secrets”. This line more or less, lays down the premise of the novel. It is a story about how the above statement by the narrator does NOT hold true.
Sheba and the “I” here, both are middle aged women. It is a story not of romance, but friendship. Though, there is a romance, between Sheba and her pupil, but the focus remains on the friendship that Sheba and the narrator (Barbara Covett) share. The theme is how a friend too can feel betrayal, in the very same manner, as a lover can.
Barbara and Sheba teach in the same school- St. George’s. Barbara is aging, single and lonely. Sheba is vivacious, married but still lonely. Both become great friends. There are all the elements of a good friendship ranging from similar interests to jealousy to cat-fights. But there is a serious issue at hand here- Sheba’s love affair with a pupil. It’s dangerous as she can be dragged to court for child abuse. And that is exactly what happens. Barbara, in a fit of jealousy hints at the affair, in front of a male teacher, who has a crush on Sheba. And this teacher goes off and alerts the principle. And herein, lays the scandal.
The media picks it and blows it up; Sheba is dumped by her husband and Barbara is accused of assisting her. And then, Sheba and Barbara, both equally in trouble, end up holed in an apartment together. This is where the story begins and this place is also where the story is “written”. The writer here is Barbara. And this story is not being told as it unfolds but as she is looking back on the events. Barbara is actually making “notes” on the scandal after the court case has been filed so that they can be used to help Sheba. Thus, Steven (the pupil) emerges not as a victim of child abuse but the one who initiated the affair and also thoroughly enjoyed it. But in spite of Barbara’s effort, Sheba emerges as the guilty, as she isn’t seen making much effort to resist Steven’s advances. In fact, this happens as there is no manipulation on Barbara’s part but facts are presented as they were.
So the entire novel is these “notes” except the last few pages. And these are the pages where the fun is. Sheba discovers these notes and is outraged. Now this is the real scandal. Their friendship is at stake. Sheba feels cheated when she discovers that it was Barbara who revealed her secret to another teacher and thus, is technically responsible for all the trouble. Now, arises the question about the fate of their friendship. Will Sheba forgive Barbara for this one slip, as otherwise she has stood by her? Or will she condemn her behaviour? This is the real scandal. The reader understands that it is Barbara’s loneliness and her own failed life that results in this error on her part. But the question is, whether Sheba can do the same.
Zoe Heller has brilliantly shown what most women are like, without dismissing it as frivolous. Barbara is not an alien. She is who we all are. She is simply a human being with follies, follies familiar to all of us, no matter what sex, colour or age. Thus, it is a book for all ages. As firstly, it shows that friendships can be as complicated as love. Secondly, that love is not just for the young. And thirdly, that it is pretty okay to have a dark and disturbed facet. It’s perfectly acceptable, provided we harm no other. Definitely no scandal here!