notes 1

What was she thinking?

“The other night at dinner, Sheba talked about the first time that she and the Connolly boy kissed.”

Even though I am only twenty-five years old, I have already experienced the pangs of true loneliness. By that, I don’t mean an afternoon without seeing anyone, or a few weeks inbetween relationships. I mean loneliness that drags on for months, where you can arrange a whole day around one small task, where seeing someone becomes an event rather than something that just happens. It’s terrible, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, truly I wouldn’t.

I bring this up because loneliness is a key theme in this book. Barbara Covett (aptly named) is a lonely old woman who has very little to live for and seeks companionship with people she deems worthwhile, although she may not go the right way about it very often. I’d imagine that many of you have seen the film that came from the book, as indeed I have. It’s a good film. While it is always my gut instinct to say that the book is better, these two end in slightly different ways and with slightly different moods, so it’s not entirely fair to compare the two.

But anyway, let’s crack on.

We touch down in nineties London and read the purported manuscript of Barbara Covett, a sixty-something teacher with a rather intense view of relationships, among other things. The book is supposed to be her retelling of the events that occured at her school between her friend Sheba Hart, a slightly hippie-ish, very middle class, married pottery teacher, and a fifteen-year-old student called Steven Connolly. As Sheba’s one remaining friend and confidant in the media mess that surrounds the affair, Barbara wields a considerable amount of power over Sheba and has decided that if she writes down the events of the story, it will be all to the good.

The story is told in flashback mostly, detailing the relationship from Barbara’s point of view. As such, much of it is Barbara repeating things that Sheba has told her, allowing already for an unreliable narrator who hasn’t actually seen many of the events first hand. Sheba’s relationship with Steven starts fairly innocently when she discovers he is a talented artist, but it quickly changes as Steven announces that he fancies his teacher. Flattered and unable to stop herself, their relationship quickly becomes physical, yet they are desperate to hide it because, obviously, it is a criminal offence. Sheba will lose not only her job, but also her husband and family, and may end up in prison.

notes 2

Judi Dench as Barbara: evil in knitwear

Sheba later confides in Barbara about the affair, and the elder woman urges her to stop it immediately. Sheba is reluctant and refuses, and Barbara, disgusted by the whole thing, becomes irritated when Sheba begins to lose interest in their friendship in favour of her young lover. Barbara is not one to take this lying down, finding Sheba’s ignoring of her to be a huge slight against her and, as such, begins to seek her revenge.

This very clever story is written, then, from the point of view of the piece’s villain. Barbara is a very intense woman with some very interesting private thoughts. She is quietly convinced of her superiority to everyone around her and seeks to be the most important aspect of her friend’s life. There are mentions earlier in the novel of another woman, Jessica, with whom Barbara was previously friendly but who cut off all contact and insisted that Barbara was too clingy and suffocating. Barbara does not understand what she has done to offend her, so. There are even implications that this is a recurring theme – Barbara latches herself onto one person and does not let go, beginning to let her life revolve around her one friend.

Perhaps it is unfair to cast Barbara as the villain. As I said, she is merely a very lonely spinster who can have weekends that revolve around visiting the launderette. She wants companionship and is perhaps unsure about the limits involved. She is not the only nasty character in here. In fact, the only character who seems to exhibit any sort of niceness is Richard, Sheba’s husband. Sheba is a self-absorbed middle-aged woman having a crisis and obsessing over her underage lover. Connolly in turn is a nasty piece of work, being rude to Sheba in front of his friends. Even the other teachers are nasty or gossipy or power-hungry. This is a book about horrible people doing horrible things to one another, and failing to accept the consequences.

It ends somewhat differently to the film, and it’s hard for me to say which one I like better. Barbara is a brilliant character (nasty people are so much more interesting) and a master of manipulation. Above all, she is funny, which makes her a very interesting villain indeed. It’s certainly not a book for everyone, and I’ve tagged it here as a thriller because there are shades of that about it, but all in all it is a tale all about our need for companionship, at whatever cost.