Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller
I recently re-read this for Book Group, and was reminded by what a fine novel it is. The affair between a naive art teacher and a fifteen-year-old pupil is a tough subject, given that Heller makes her protagonist quite sympathetic in a way, but the real villain of the novel is Barbara Covett, an embittered old spinster who covets Sheba, and manipulates the whole situation to reach her target. Sheba Hart is weak – she’s let everyone manipulate her; her older husband, her horrid teenage daughter, her ghastly mother. So when one of her pupils pays her too much attention, she basks in it and then takes it too far.
But more chilling is her ‘friendship’ with Barbara – an old-style teacher, desperate for attention herself. Barbara moves from friend to confidante and trusted ally and worse, disposing of Sheba’s other teacher friend Sue, whom she describes thus:
Underneath all that free and easy hippy malarkey she is actually the most awful prig – the sort of woman who wears Lady-lite panty liners every day of the month, as if there is nothing her body secretes that she doesn’t think vile enough to be captured in cotton wool, wrapped in paper bags and thrust far, far down at the bottom of the waste paper bin. (I’ve been in the staff toilet after her and I know.)
What a truly awful character. Our book group were split over the degree of Barbara’s awfulness – not all saw her as quite the manipulative bitch I thought she was. It’s easy to forget that the novel is narrated by Barbara, quite the unreliable narrator. The book was published in 2003, but set earlier – we debated on when smoking in the staff room stopped!
I re-watched the film too, which, in Patrick Marber’s screenplay, makes Barbara an even worse woman and has an improved ending. Judi Dench plays her with obvious relish, enjoying playing a villain for once. (Book 8.5/10, Film 9.5/10)
Source: Own copy. Zoë Heller, Notes on a Scandal (Viking, 2003) Penguin paperback, 256 pages. BUY at Amazon via affiliate link.
Birthday Girl by Haruki Murakami
Murakami’s 2002 short story, translated by Jay Rubin and previously included in another collection, was re-published as a single to celebrate Murakami’s 70th birthday. It is a young waitress’s twentieth birthday and her plans to have the night off didn’t come off, so she’s waiting tables at the posh Italian restaurant in Tokyo as normal. Every night the reclusive owner of the restaurant has a meal taken up to him by the manager, but he is ill and tonight she is asked to take it – and her evening takes a fateful turn when she talks to the inhabitant of room 604…A beguiling little story that is both sweet and, like all fairy tales, has a slight sting in the tale.
Source: Own copy. 48 pages, out of print as a single now.
An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell by Deborah Levy
I’m developing a quiet obsession with Deborah Levy’s works. She always challenges the reader, makes them think! Now to a novella she originally wrote in 1990, but revised in 2014. This is no ordinary novella – firstly, it’s written in blank verse; secondly, it’s written as a conversation between an accountant ‘he’ stuck in his rut and an angel ‘she’ who flies in to rescue him.
I love the juxtaposition of the philosophical with the utterly banal in the quote pictured on the right. This is the angel’s style as she tries to persuade ‘he’ to try something new – but it’s not easy.
The angel and the accountant are already bickering like old lovers (see below). Does he even want to be rescued? Might living in the ‘suburbs of hell’ be good enough for him?
Levy poses all these kinds of questions whilst having great fun with her two characters – there’s romance, but also as the blurb put it ‘slapstick’. The overarching feel of this poem is comedic, true, but there are many truths hidden within its lines.
I rather enjoyed this slim little hardback and read the whole twice to appreciate further and read beyond the obvious jokes. Levy cast her spell on me once again. (9/10)
Source: Own copy. Deborah Levy, An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell (And Other Stories, 2014) hardback, 75 pages). BUY at Amazon UK via affiliate link.