As the term where I work was drawing to an exhausting conclusion, I picked up Joanne Harris’s latest novel. I like Joanne Harris’s writing – I have actually read most of her novels. ‘Different Class’ – a psychological thriller, is perhaps not my usual bag – but I rather like stories set in schools – and I absolutely loved ‘Gentlemen and Players’. As a former educator herself, Joanne Harris understands schools and the people who inhabit them, and in this book, Harris recreates the atmosphere of a school steeped in tradition perfectly.
Harris is probably best known for ‘Chocolat’ I loved that novel and the two which follow it. This is an entirely different kind of novel, and in it Harris shows she is a master of the psychological thriller (a genre I generally don’t much like – but I loved this one), well written, superbly plotted, and with some pretty big themes. It has some chillingly brilliant characterisation, and the twists and turns, keep the reader guessing (ok I did actually guess some things – but that added to it for me) Joanne Harris cleverly misdirects her readers – which makes for a wonderfully compelling read.
“All schools have their skeletons. St Oswald’s is no exception. Most of the time, we try our best to keep them in the closet. But this time, the only recourse we have is to throw open all the closets, light as many bulbs as we can and catch the vermin as it comes out.”
As in the aforementioned novel, Different Class finds us again in the minor grammar school of St. Oswald’s with a long history of boys’ education, but the times are changing.
One of the main narrators of the story is ageing Latin master Roy Straitley, close to his 66th birthday, Mr Straitley has decided against retirement, wanting to ensure the continuation of his subject. He has seen all kinds of boys come and go, rebels and underdogs, clowns and little snitches. He never forgets any of his boys, and while he doesn’t admit to having favourites, Straitley has his Brodie Boys, who he can rely upon to take the register and cover for him when he’s late for class. Straitley, is old school, allergic to technology, he smokes Gauloises, keeps Liquorice Allsorts in his desk and occasionally enjoys a drink at the Thirsty Scholar nearby. Straitley’s no nonsense cynicism is a breath of fresh air as a new broom sweeps in to St Oswald’s.
It is September 2005, the beginning of another school year, and Straitley is awaiting his introduction to the new head. The school has been in crisis since a scandal the previous year brought a lot of unwelcome attention to the school. Now a new super head has been appointed, and the new head brings his own crisis team with him. This new management team are all bright smiles and shiny suits; the head communicates his new initiatives by email. Though Straitley has more than emails (and girls in the sixth form) to worry about when he finally meets the new head, for the super head is none other than a former pupil.
“Johnny Harrington, ye gods. My nemesis; my bête noire; the boy who almost cost me my job and cost the School a whole lot more. And now he’s a Headmaster, forsooth…”
Twenty-four years earlier Johnny Harrington and two other boys had joined the school at the beginning of the third year, “seven term boys” – and Johnny Harrington and Straitley had not got along together very well. 1981 – the year these boys join St Oswald’s, a year which comes to be marked by another scandal, a scandal which Roy Straitley is still brooding on twenty-four years later.
The other narrator of the story is an un-named boy, a pupil at St Oswald’s, a disturbed boy, he addresses his diary to Mousey, and speaks of his ‘condition’ being the reason he was sent to St Oswald’s. The diarist’s story becomes distinctly darker, with tales of Christian fanaticism, violence, animal cruelty and murder.
“So many people are animals under the skin and the uniform. A pig, an elephant, a dog. With his big head and curly hair, Mr Straitley’s a pantomime lion, playing to the gallery of all his baying sycophants. Mr Scoones is a bullfrog, full of air and pompousness. Dr Devine is a mantis, all brittle and righteous. Most of the boys are dogs, of course. Running in packs, begging for scraps, yapping ‘yes sir, no sir’ I used to have a dog, you know. Not for long. I hate dogs.”
The story of the staff and pupils of St Oswald’s is told in three time periods, 1981, 1988 and 2005 – the stories are naturally linked. The overriding theme is homosexuality, and the way in which a traditional church school in the early 1980’s sought to deal with boys needing support and guidance in matters of their sexuality. In time it becomes clear – that for some, not much had changed in the years since.
I thoroughly enjoyed every word of this novel, and I’m so glad I stepped outside my comfort zone to read it.