We have a dusting of snow this morning and the temperatures have dropped over the weekend, making it seem more like proper winter and less like spring, although I hear we have warmer days coming soon. Still, it’s bright and crisp right now, a perfect morning to enjoy a steaming cup of chai tea (in my “Banned Books” mug!) and a yummy date bar from City Cafe.
This is Freedom to Read week, a time when we celebrate our right to intellectual freedom and freedom of expression (http://www.freedomtoread.ca/). I don’t have time to read my favourite banned book this week, as I have a book club meeting coming up next weekend and have to concentrate on the book club selection, but last week I read and have nearly finished a new book by Joanne Harris, Different Class, which is turning out to be one that explores the power of the Church and School to ban or challenge what they consider to be “subversive" behaviour. Set in the early 1980s and 2005, this story is told in two alternating narrative voices, and takes place at St Oswald’s School, an elite British boys’ day school where tradition has ruled for over a century. But in September 2005, in the aftermath of some scandal, a new Headmaster arrives, with the intention of sweeping out the cobwebs and bringing the School into the 21st Century. The fact that this Head is a former student troubles Form-Master and veteran Latin teacher Roy Straitley nearly as much as the move to get rid of the pigeon-holes to make way for email and computer workstations. There is something about Johnny Harrington that has rankled Straitley ever since he was a student, albeit briefly, more than two decades earlier, when he, along with his small circle of friends, was involved in some suspicious and unpleasant business down at the deserted clay pits, as well as some accusations involving a gay teacher. The flashbacks to the 1980s are told mainly in the voice of an unnamed student who addresses his comments to his friend Mousey, while the sections set in 2005 are told from the point of view of cantankerous, waspish Straitley, who, nearing retirement, resists change and holds onto his life at St Oswald’s ever so tightly, refusing to “go gentle into that good night”. As complaints are made and issues regarding his teaching and behaviour are raised, stories from nearly 25 years ago resurface, and Straitley detects an almost sociopathic determination on the part of Harrington and his Crisis Team, dubbed by Straitley "Thing One and Thing Two", to rid the School of its history and rebrand it, which includes purging the school of the veteran staff members, the “Old Boys’ Club”. But how reliable is either narrator? What really happened all those years ago, and how much of it is coming back to haunt them? This is a substantial book, a complex, hefty psychological suspense novel into which a reader could easily lose herself for hours at a time, a detailed exploration into events that are significant on so many levels, and where something sinister lurks beneath the surface. I thought I would have to put it down and come back to it after reading the book club choice, but I have just over 100 pages to go and it is so interesting, so detailed, and so ominously compelling that I’m going to make time today to finish it. I can’t give anything more away, as there are some significant plot twists and revelations, and I don't want to spoil anyone's reading experience - much of the delicious pleasure of this book is in the "not knowing". If you enjoy complex psychological thrillers (like Minette Walters), or novels with curmudgeonly, sardonic schoolteacher narrators (think Robertson Davies and Fifth Business), then this is the book for you. I had no idea what to expect, so the excellence of this book really surprised me. I am particularly impressed with the insightfulness of the characters and Harris' clever use of language... and also the fact that she can keep all of these details straight (this is certainly not a short, straightforward novel). I read one other book by Harris in the past, Five Quarters of the Orange, which I also enjoyed, but it was a very different sort of novel. By turns dark and darkly humourous, this one gets a 10 out of 10, and may be a book that, once it comes out in tradepaperback, I may have to add to my collection.
OK, that’s all I’ve got to say on this bright morning. Happy Reading!
Bye for now…