It is not often that a book moves me to the extent of writing a review while I’m still halfway into the book. Most of my reviews are written after a mulling over of the text and culling of my emotions so that I can truly focus on the things that mattered. It also helps me decide how I really feel about the book as compared to how I felt about it when I finished the book.
However, Notes on a Scandal, demanded a different treatment. For a book that I’d thought of as a light read, this book is a whirlpool of psychological nuances. In this work of fiction, Zoe Heller forced me to look beyond the obviousness of most human interactions into the constant stream of thoughts that go on in the person’s head. If Woolf’s To The Lighthouse embraces the stream of consciousness that persists in our brains at any point of time, Heller’s Notes on a Scandal depicts how thoughts define our actions and how our perceptions are more of an insight into us than the person we are perceiving in a certain manner.
While the premise of the book is that of adultery committed by a woman with her student, it is not the most compelling, or even entertaining, part of the book. Barbara, the narrator of the story, is the real protagonist of the story. While it would be incorrect to blame her for Sheba’s transgressions, she is the reason the story unfolds the way that it does. Zoe Heller has done a remarkable job of creating a friend who seeks nothing but her “friend’s” destruction. We’ve all felt envy towards our friends at some point of time or the other and occasionally, we’ve all met people like Barbara in our lives. This novel gives an all new dimension to the word “frenemy.” Notes on a Scandal is a story of how one wrong person’s influence can shred a tapestry of life woven over the years. The novel highlights the importance of understanding the people we choose to let into our inner circle and constantly weighing their impact on situations and relations that are important to us. It is a cautionary tale of how easily we can misread people’s intentions and ignore their obvious effect on our lives – to disastrous ends.
What really comes through is the honest portrayal of characters, all of whom are shades of grey that veer heavily towards the black. We’ve all held the moral high ground when people around us have erred. Our righteousness stems from our cowardice to accept how we may have made mistakes ourselves. We allow others’ mistakes to justify all of our transgressions and this book unflinchingly portrays that. We see Sheba as merely the mirror for all of everyone else’s hypocrisy instead of being the catalyst for their behaviour. Notes on a Scandal is simply a narration of people and their lives. A narration we would be foolish to ignore.