Different Class, by Joanne Harris, is the third book in a series of psychological thrillers by the author, each set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Malbry. I have not read the first two books so approached this one standalone. This did not detract from my enjoyment although has made me eager to pick up the prequels. There are numerous references to past events of which I would like to know more.
The story is set in an old and venerable fee paying school, St Oswald’s, which has been rocked by scandal. The elderly Latin master, Roy Straitley, arrives for the start of a new academic year curious to meet the recently appointed headteacher. He has seen several heads come and go during his thirty-four year tenure at the school, which he himself attended as a boy. Despite the difficulties of the previous year he believes that the institution can once again rise and wishes to ensure it does so without losing that which has made it what it is.
The new headmaster arrives with his sharp suit, his Crisis Intervention Team, plans for restructuring, IT and paperless administration. Alongside this leap into the future he brings a whiff of the past which Straitley balks at as much as the proposed changes. The new head is also an old boy, one who Straitley taught and who was complicit in sending a master and friend to jail. Neither head nor teacher holds the other and their ways of working in high regard.
The plot unfolds along two major timelines, 1981 and 2005. The earlier includes diary entries written by a boy newly arrived at the school and with obvious issues. Both timelines include first person accounts by Straitley. He is a traditionalist who cares deeply for his pupils, especially his Brodie Boys, favourites because of their initiative which manifests itself as minor rebellion. It is interesting to look at the school through these two sets of eyes, pupil and master. The reader can easily empathise with the challenges faced by both.
The diary entries emanate menace. The writer addresses an erstwhile friend, Mousey, and appears preoccupied by death. He enjoys watching animals suffer. His family are members of a strict church and insist he adheres to their skewed interpretation of godliness. They are outwardly successful and will not permit him to befriend those of a different class.
The diary writer makes two friends, also new boys at the school, and they are drawn towards a hip, young teacher who plays them music that would be banned in their homes. Their parents wish to protect their malleable young minds from corrupting influences, whilst filling them with their own narrow beliefs.
Although the school has a system of pastoral care it is Straitley who pupils approach for advice as he does not judge based on the Christian ethos promoted within the school. Straitley is not, however, without his personal prejudices. In the later timeline he is also constrained by the changing official views on what is acceptable behaviour for a master. This made for fascinating reading, how the old system was more effective than the strictures apparent now, yet how much damage could thereby pass unseen.
It is clear from the off that bad things are going to happen but, as with the best thrillers, the plot twists and turns offering the reader clues that will prove significant but not as expected. The provenance of key characters is revealed gradually with possible outcomes remaining shrouded, palpably sinister.
The denouement ties up the many threads yet leaves much to consider, not least the purpose of punishment. There is poignancy and frustration at young lives damaged. None of the characters emerges unscathed.
I read this book in a sitting as I could not put it down. It is brooding, complex, utterly compelling. Put simply, a fantastic read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.