Posts Tagged ‘Joanne Harris’

different class

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.

joanne harris

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“someone once told me that, in France alone, a quarter of a million letters are delivered every year to the dead. What she didn’t tell me is that sometimes the dead write back.”

Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé; is the third book in the series which began with the hugely successful Chocolat in 1999 and continued with The Lollipop Shoes in 2007. I have had this book for at least three years – a huge hardback taking up room which my mum had passed on to me. Having now read (and loved) all three I would say that readers could move quite comfortably from Chocolat to Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé without having read The Lollipop shoes, as the setting for this novel is that of Chocolat and we meet again many of those wonderful characters. Modern novels and I don’t always gel as well as I want us to – but this I loved.(I do recommend reading all three though – they are fabulous).

It is eight years since the events of Chocolat – which saw Vianne Rocher and her eldest daughter Anouk, leave Lansquenet, four years since the events in The Lollipop Shoes. Vianne and her two daughters live on a houseboat on the Seine with Roux – the man she met in Lansquenet eight years earlier and who is the father of her second daughter Rosette.

One day Vianne receives a letter from beyond the grave – a letter from her old friend Armande in Lansquenet, who has been dead for eight years. It is a letter written before, saved for a time when Armande knew Vianne would be needed again.
Change has come to Lansquenet and that small southern town that Vianne left I not the same place she now returns to with her two girls, leaving Roux in Paris.

Les Marauds, the former slum area of Lansquenet the site near the river of the old tanneries, is now home to new families. People from Tunsia, Morocco, and Algeria, people with their own culture, religion, the scent of their food filling the air, have reinvigorated the area. Yet with this new community comes conflict, misunderstanding and dark secrets. Mohammed Mahjoubi a simple elderly man, a moderate and kindly imam – has led his community for some years, but he is being gradually squeezed out by younger men with less moderate views. Mahjoubi’s son Said runs a gym, which has become a gathering place for his friends. Veiled women now walk the streets of this district, and a minaret has appeared above the house used as a mosque. Once, the younger generation easily managed to exist within two communities – now there is discord and fear.

“There are so many tribes, after all; chosen tribes, lost tribes, warring tribes, converted tribes. Also, of course, football supporters; rock fans; political parties; believers in extraterrestrials; extremists; moderates; conspiracy theorists; Boy Scouts; the unemployed; river-gypsies; vegetarians; cancer survivors; poets and punks; each tribe with its multitude of smaller and smaller sub-categories, because, in the end, doesn’t everyone really want to belong somewhere, to find their perfect space in the world?”

As Vianne arrives in Lansquenet it is the beginning of Ramadan in Les Marauds – while the rest of Lansquenet celebrate Sainte- Marie with a carnival. Vianne’s old nemesis Francis Reynard watches from the side lines. Time has changed Monsieur le Curé a little – he is older, a little mellower – once revered and respected he is now in disgrace – a new priest is taking his place – a priest who favours the use of PowerPoint – and Reynard is in danger of losing his position completely.

“And then, with a jolt, I saw her: Inès Bencharki, the Woman in Black, walking along the boulevard with the measured grace of a dancer. Other women walk together, talking and laughing among themselves. Inès Bencharki walks apart, bracketed in silence; shoulders straight; head held high; aloof in a capsule of twilit space.”

Inès Bencharki followed her brother Karim Bencharki to Lansquenet to attend his wedding – and never left. Ines – ‘the woman in black’ allowing only her eyes to show under her niqab has brought with her an atmosphere of change and disquiet. No one it seems in Les Marauds has any time for her she is regarded with hatred and suspicion by the other women – who nevertheless have all taken to wearing headscarves or even the niqab like Inès. Inès Bencharki made her home with her daughter in Vianne’s former chocolatarie – setting up a girls’ school, a school Curé Reynard did not believe was necessary. When fire ripped through the old shop, thankfully allowing Inés and her daughter to escape unharmed, the finger of blame is pointed firmly in the direction of one man.

In the cobbled streets of the old village of Lansquenet that we remember so well from Chocolat – we meet again many of the characters from that earlier novel. Change has come to some of them too. Caro Clairmont has changed her allegiance to the new priest, while her son Luc tries to shake off his mother’s dominance. Joséphine Muscat has changed too – she’s delighted to see Vianne again – and yet she appears to be hiding something – Vianne wonders if it has anything to do with her son, Pilou – who is around the same age as Vianne’s daughter Rosette. Vianne decides to stay a while, staying in the house of her old friend Armande – with its tree laden with peaches.

Vianne is needed again it seems to heal the wounds of a village she came to care so much for. She finds unexpected friendship can now exist between her and Francis Reynard – and discovers more than one person in need of her assistance. These two communities are not so different really – but they have been hurt by the misunderstandings that arise between two different cultures living side by side. Food is a great unifier in this novel – though not just chocolates this time – Vianne does make some chocolates, and the merest mention of her truffles gets my juices flowing.

I do love Joanne Harris’ writing, Peaches for Monsieur le Curé is written with such a wonderful sense of place that I feel I know almost every inch of (the fictional) Lansquenet. Joanne Harris shows real understanding for the complex religious and cultural conflicts that exist in Europe. Wonderful prose and fabulously realistic, fascinating characters, why I left it so long to read this book I have no idea – but it proved rather an unexpected treat.


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