This book was purchased on a whim. I had mainly heard good stuff about this, whether the book or the film, people on the whole seemed to like it. The book was nominated for the Man Booker Prize – so this should be good stuff. I had also heard that it contained vague sapphic undercurrents and that Judy Dench was excellent in the film. So with all these plusses going for it, when I saw it in the Uni bookshop sale just as I was finishing The Unlit Lamp, and in need of the next commuting read, I picked it up.
Disappointment! This wasn’t a fantastic read for me and so was restricted to the home time commute only. Now, despite not having actually seen the film I appeared to be channeling my inner Judy Dench, as the book was read cover to cover in the dulcet tones of Dame Judy. Whether that coloured my view or not I don’t know, but I was underwhelmed by the whole thing and will definitely not put the DVD on my wish list any time soon.
You see, the thing is, I couldn’t get into the style of it. The story itself isn’t too bad. In nutshell, it is a sordid little tale about a lonely, late middle-aged, single woman, Barbara Covett, her obsession with a younger woman, Sheba Hart, and the younger woman’s involvement with a 15 year old boy, Stephen Connolly. The chaos this affair brings about and the aftermath of the affair. Both of the women are teachers at the same school that Connolly is a pupil at. However, the story is told by the older woman who has carefully documented the illicit affair, rather than directly by the people involved. We are also made aware in the opening paragraph of the book of how it all ended before we begin to learn how it all began. So the story here is really how we got to where we started from Barbara’s perspective. It was the nature of this storytelling, however unusual and clever, that was lacking for me.
That said, however, I think my real unease is more related to the depiction of the Barbara character. Barbara is painted as being a lonely figure whose only companion until the arrival of Sheba was her cat. This left a nasty taste in my mouth, as if the worst possible thing to befall a woman is becoming an older unattached woman. For, by society’s rules this means she has failed at the one thing a woman needs to succeed at – a successful relationship. As the story unfolds it is revealed that Barbara had previously been obsessed with another female teacher before Sheba. However I hesitate to describe Barbara as a lesbian as it is not entirely clear whether she is or not as she seemed not only to have a fixation with Sheba but equally she seemed both flustered and then pleased to be asked to lunch by Brian Bangs (another teacher). However, when Bangs reveals that he has a crush on Sheba and wants to know whether Sheba is interested in him Barbara became a woman scorned and to get back at Sheba, who she feels isn’t paying her enough attention, let’s the cat out of the bag with respect to the Connolly affair. If others do read Barbara as lesbian then I am even more perturbed – there are few enough representations of lesbians out there in the media and arts as it is without resorting to a pejorative stereotype.