Category Archives: Heller, Zoe

What Was She Thinking: Zoe Heller

“You never appreciate what a compost your memory is until you start trying to smooth past events into a rational sequence.”

Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking, a tale of how Sheba, a married woman, a teacher, has a sexual relationship with Steven, a 15 year old pupil could have been ripped from the headlines, so perhaps, then, it’s not too surprising to discover that the author was inspired by a real-life case. The absolute brilliant aspect of the book is the unreliable narrator, Barbara, a bitter, caustic, lonely single woman, who works with Sheba. Barbara’s version is, in her words, “her own account of Sheba’s downfall” in which she played a “minor role.” In a sense, there are three people in this sordid relationship: Sheba, Steven and Barbara. Media opinion swirling around this case declares that Steven is the victim and that Sheba is the predator. But it’s also arguable that Barbara, who played a critical role in this mess, is the supreme predator. Barbara, possibly a closeted lesbian (I’d argue against that) or then again possibly just lonely, is a long term history teacher when Sheba arrives as the new pottery teacher in the art department at an appalling London school. At first Barbara dislikes Sheba, but in common with many teachers at the school, she quickly falls under Sheba’s spell. There’s something about Sheba that’s magical: she’s disingenuous, and just … nice. But as nice as she may well be, she’s fresh meat for the school delinquents. When Barbara steps in to help Sheba with a discipline problem, the two women strike up a relationship, and soon Barbara is visiting Sheba’s home where she meets Sheba’s daughter, Polly, Ben, her Down’s syndrome son, and Richard, her much older, egotistical husband.

“You’re Barbara,” a voice said. I looked up and saw a tall man with a lot of crazy grey hair standing in the doorway, peering at me through thick spectacles. “Hello,” he said. “I’m Richard.” Sheba had mentioned that her husband was older than her; I was taken aback to discover by how much. Richard was not yet what you could call elderly, but middle age was no longer a plausible category for him either. His shoulders had begun to slope in the manner of overburdened coat hangers. The backs of his hands had a shiny, yellowish look.

Sheba is infantilized by her pedantic husband. He “condescended to Sheba, as he condescended to everyone. And whenever he got a little tired, or felt the spotlight shift momentarily from himself, or had one of his opinions challenged too vigorously, he tended to lapse into petulant babyness.” By looking at Sheba’s family life, it’s easy to see that Steven was a reaction to her life and marriage. Sheba admits that with Richard, she’d “been allowed to stay a child.” That’s one way of looking at it. Barbara who understands Sheba’s childhood notes that it came instinctively to Sheba to step in the role of “handmaiden to a great, pompous man.”

So onto Steven, the grubby, grotty 15 year-old who is so attractive in Sheba’s eyes, that she’s weak at the knees and drops her knickers. Steven is boorish, coarse, not particularly intelligent, and let’s face it … throughly uninteresting. Of course this is not a relationship that is going to last. Sheba is an intelligent, yet oddly naive woman who puts her life, her career, her reputation into the hands of a yobo. As for Steven… he’s mad about Sheba until she bores him.

What Was She Thinking is a perfect illustration of one of my pet theories: it matters not what or who the love object is, the love object is a vessel for the lover’s needs.

Barbara’s unreliable narration is as wickedly sharp as anything written by Muriel Spark. If we were to interview Sheba, we would probably get some sobby soppy version of her great “amour,” and Steven would probably present his own version of events (he does this later in the book), so how perfect that the narrator should deliver the tale with her own twisted, unreliable agenda. Barbara is a very lonely woman–a woman with resentments when it comes to the lives of others, and she’s spent a lifetime being left outside of the social sphere. While Barbara seems to love Sheba, there’s also a deep layer of resentment towards her. There are hints of another female friendship that turned rancid, and then when a male teacher appears to offer a hand of friendship, it opens the door to treachery. Barbara is content to take crumbs from Sheba, even as she circles around her, warding off a rival teacher, weaving a web of intrigue and dependency. But it’s when Sheba shows her lack of concern for Barbara’s cat (her sole companion) that Barbara’s claws come out. ….

This was a reread for me and I enjoyed the book with its deliciously wicked sense of humour even more the second time around. Here’s a final quote thrown in for fun. Oh the road to hell is paved with good intentions:

Such do-gooding fantasies are not uncommon in comprehensive schools these days. Many of the younger teachers harbour secrets hopes of “making a difference.” They have all seen the American films in which lovely young women tame inner-city thugs with recitations of Dylan Thomas. They, too, want to to conquer their little charges’ hearts with poetry and compassion.

And look where good intentions (or smokescreen?) led Sheba…. There’s more than one way to blow up your life.

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