Summer is definitely here, as we are experiencing our first “heat alert” of the year. Right now it’s quite lovely and breezy, but it’s still early in the day, so I’m expecting to do very little in terms of outdoor activity later… hmmm, maybe I’ll just sit under a shady tree and read!
I actually have a book I’m not quite finished reading, Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris. I’m three quarters of the way through this and hope to finish today. This novel is the first in a series of novels set in the fictional English town of Malbry, and focuses on the lives of students and masters at St Oswald’s Boys’ Grammar School. I recently read Different Class, which is also set in this school, and it is because of that book, which I thought was fabulous, that I tracked down this one. Told alternately from the points of view of Roy Straitley, a Senior Master and Latin teacher, and the perpetrator of the crimes, the story unfolds as the new school year begins. Straitley is nearing 65, and is being encouraged to retire, as he shuns computers and, set in his ways refined over thirty-three years of teaching, he is resistant to change, despite strong encouragement from the New Head. Along come some new staff members, and one of them is bent on destroying St Oswald’s, crumbling it from the bottom up. Over the course of the novel, this staff member indulges in flashbacks to when he was a boy of twelve and his father was a Porter at the school. He desperately wanted to be a student there, but was instead sent to Sunnybank Park, a public school where the common folk send their children. Through these flashbacks, we witness firsthand the experiences of this narrator, and discover, bit by bit, the events that led to the present day’s desire for revenge. This person, who remains nameless until the end (and I’m not there yet!), does his best to pass himself off as a first-year St Oswald’s student, and befriends Leon, several years older and full of mischief, with whom he develops a disturbingly obsessive relationship. As events begin occurring at St Oswald’s, the theft of a pen, the disappearance of some personal items belonging to both staff and students, then a (false) report of drunk driving on the part of a staff member and the revelation of a smuggling operation, only Straitley senses that they are connected, and he must piece the puzzle together before the final act of revenge. This is a dark psychological thriller that is complex and engrossing, and explores themes such as class consciousness and the long-term effects of childhood trauma and abuse. The students at St Oswald’s are considered privileged, and experience a sense of entitlement that the local children at the public school, the Sunnybankers, don’t share. The town despises the elitist attitude of the school, and cling to every shred of news, real or fraudulent, that reflects badly on St Oswald. This novel, like Different Class, is at once a complex literary mystery and a commentary on social class differences prevalent in British society, where peer pressure is strong and begins at a very early age. Harris uses similar narrative techniques and style in both Gentlemen and Players and Different Class, and she also explores similar themes, so if you plan to read these two novels, I would recommend not reading them back-to-back, as they are too similar and may give you a jaded view. I’m looking forward to getting to the end of this one and discovering who the perpetrator is.
That’s all for today. Enjoy the rest of the weekend!