After thirty years at St Oswald’s Grammar in North Yorkshire, Latin master Roy Straitley has seen all kinds of boys come and go. Each class has its clowns, its rebels, its underdogs, its ‘Brodie’ boys who, whilst of course he doesn’t have favourites, hold a special place in an old teacher’s heart. But every so often there’s a boy who doesn’t fit the mould. A troublemaker. A boy with hidden shadows inside.
With insolvency and academic failure looming, a new broom has arrived at the venerable school, bringing Powerpoint, sharp suits and even sixth form girls to the dusty corridors. But while Straitley does his sardonic best to resist this march to the future, a shadow from his past is stirring. A boy who even twenty years on haunts his teacher’s dreams. A boy capable of bad things.
Joanne Harris is one of my favourite authors, and I was delighted to discover she had a new novel coming out this year. It’s a sort-of sequel to Gentleman and Players, but you don’t have to have read that one to follow the events in Different Class.
It’s a psychological crime mystery, if I had to try describe the genre, with a heavier focus on the mental side of things. The violence is minimal, but it certainly makes an impact. Told through first person, these kinds of events always seem more disturbing when seen through the thought processes of the person committing them.
As I’ve come to expect from the author’s mystery writing, the story is geniusly, meticulously plotted, and there’s a glorious bait-and-switch two thirds of the way through which had me reeling and reevaluating everything I’d read so far.
There are multiple perspectives in this novel, also switching back from events that happened in the past to the present day. Some of the narrators are left anonymous. However, once you settle in to the prose, it’s easy enough to follow.
The author is a former teacher herself, and her love for the profession shines through main character Roy Straitley, elderly Latin-teacher who finds himself stubbornly clinging onto his ideals and fighting the rising tide that is eradicating old traditions in pursuit of progress, technology and modern methods of teaching. While one can sympathise with his position, he’s also incredibly dismissive of certain developments in the modern era which should be praised, such as diagnosis of learning disorders and mental health counsellors, for instance.
The spider plants in my form-room are more appropriate to St Oldswald’s; like our boys, they require virtually no attention, tolerate water but do not demand a complex delivery system, and respond more positively to neglect than to sensitive handling.
The novel also touches on homosexuality, abuse, bullying and the incredibly damaging attitudes of the past towards these issues. (And indeed, the problematic attitudes of the present time as well.) It incorporates incredibly toxic relationships and characters. There is a strange mixture of rivalry and camaraderie present, both between the staff faculty and the students themselves. Finally, the book tackles the running of a semi-prestigious school in the current era of helicopter parents, heightened awareness of student safety and the multitude of things that can go wrong.
Certain plot threads are deliberately left unresolved at the end, which means that while I enjoyed the novel immensely, I was also left incredibly uneasy and unsettled. Certain people didn’t meet their comeuppance, which is what one would so hope for.
Nevertheless, a great offering from an author who hooked me right from the days of Chocolat.
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.
ARC received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may differ from final publication.