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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 September, 2003, 16:26 GMT 17:26 UK
Heller cooks up a scandal
by Chris Jones
BBC News Online

Photo by Sigrid Estrada
Heller's first book came out in 1999
Zoe Heller's second novel, Notes on a Scandal, has made the Booker shortlist 2003.

The novel is not what it first appears: a sympathetic account by its schoolteacher narrator of her new friend and colleague's affair with a 15-year-old student.

The woman initially described as the "guilty" party of the scandal, Sheba - a married, upper-middle-class pottery teacher whose altruistic interest in an unremarkable pupil develops into a sexual one - is the innocent of the tale.

She is simply an unusual conquest for the manipulative boy, although his irresistible physical attraction for Sheba is perhaps the only feature of the novel that is not wholly convincing. But then, such chemistry defies definition.

But if Sheba is treated callously by her under-age lover, his exploitation of her cannot compare with that of the narrator, Barbara.

In her early 60s, friendless, with a judgmental bitterness borne of loneliness, she yearns initially for some crumbs of approval from Sheba.

But her designs become obsessive until, perhaps unwittingly, she makes the control of Sheba's life the purpose of her own.

Heller, the London-born Daily Telegraph columnist who lives in New York, weaves other threads into her novel, including some sharp, amusing barbs on class.

But it is Barbara's pathetic malevolence that dominates. "This is not a story about me," she says. But it is.

Notes on a Scandal is published by Viking.

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