Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What Was She Thinking, by Zoe Heller

Well, it’s been years since I opened a new, or recent, novel and read it in a day. Generally I stick to old novels that have established reputations. My current experience with contemporary literature is that my endurance runs out after the first twenty pages. Literature these days seems to be grown in hothouse enviroments. The writing may seem exotic, but take these dainty things out into the real world and they wither away into meaninglessness immediately.

Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking (the title alone is like something Anthony Trollope would use. Can You Forgive Her comes to mind) is no such book. Heller seems to have followed Samuel Johnson’s cardinal rule on writing: whenever you are particularly proud of a line, strike it out immediately. Heller writes in short, matter-of-fact sentences, completely avoiding those horribly convoluted, self-congratulatory sentences so favoured by today’s literary darlings.

Zoe Heller is an award winning British columnist, and has written for an array of publications, including The New Yorker, The London Review of Books and Esquire. Her weekly column appears in London’s Daily Telegraph. I have a theory that people who write commercially, for newspapers and magazines, write better books, as they’re trained to write for a broader audience. They’re writing is always clear and uncluttered. I’ve got nothing to back this up, but I’m sure if researched my theory would prove true.

What Was She Thinking is both funny and strange. Its main theme, it seems to me, is of life’s terrible loneliness. Narrator Barbara Covett, a sixty-something school teacher, makes friends with new arrival Sheba Hart. Sheba confides that she is having an affair with one of the students, a sixteen-year-old boy named Steven Connolly. Due to the fact that Barbara does not squeal on her friend, the two women get tied together in the deceit, a situation that the solitary Barbara likes as it provides her with the relationship that is missing from her personal life.

This is a story of loneliness leading people to acts of perversion. What else can you make of Barbara, who schemes friendships rather than making them? Yet I loved Barbara so much. I couldn’t help but always find myself nodding in agreement with her opinions on life and people. I loved the descriptions of her arid and stale single life, the deep yearnings to make friends and be a part of life, yet somehow unable to control her aloofness and judgemental manner. Any one who has lived alone will recognise Heller’s descriptions of single domesticity. There was one description of how Barbara’s ‘tossed’ cushions on her couch had not moved in months or years.

This is one terrific novel, full of human truths, embarrassing truths. The sort of things you don’t want other people to know about yourself. I’m now off to the library to pick up Heller’s first novel.

1 comment:

Janine said...

This is the book that the film "Notes on a Scandal" with Judi Dench, "our" Cate Blanchett, and Bill Nighy is based on. I think that "What was she thinking?" is its American title. I really don't know why one title was chosen over another.