Gig Review: Joanne Harris in Bath

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Anyone who follows Joanne Harris on Twitter (and if you don’t, you should) will know that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She comes across online as strong, assured, and intelligent. Add to this she is the author of a variety of styles of books, which suggests to me that she has no desire to be pigeon holed. This is the sort of person whose talents I can admire. Thus, when I spotted that Toppings Bookshop in Bath was offering an evening with this estimable author to promote her latest work, Different Class (which I review here), I decided to go along.

There are risks in meeting someone not personally known but admired. An author is not their work and I would never wish to judge a book by any prejudices I may hold against its creator. With Ms Harris this was not an issue. Attending a talk and a reading is still to observe a public persona, but when warmth and a sense of fun bubbles through as it did at this event my admiration can only increase.

As is my wont I arrived early at the venue. I was studying the window display when I noticed Ms Harris enter the shop. Not wishing to intrude upon her introductions to the staff I hung back before making my way inside. Unlike many visiting authors she had not moved out of sight but was browsing the stacks. When I gave my name to the manager she recognised it. “You are @followthehens” she said. My evening was made. If only I had the skill for small talk I believe she would happily have chatted on. Never have I regretted my social failings so much.

The evening commenced with a short introduction after which Ms Harris talked of her inspirations. Her mother had cautioned early that writers often died peniless and that a more secure job was required. With such a gauntlet thrown down Ms Harris penned two works with quiet success. Quiet success is not enough, however, and to continue she needed to find a home for her third work.

It was while she was constructing a sculpture of her rejections that she received a thirty page letter from a prospective agent detailing her failings as a writer. These included not setting her story in America, and not including enough sex. The manuscript was for ‘Chocolat’ whose subsequent success (without the suggested changes) enabled Ms Harris to leave her secure job. She talked of the film adaptation saying that she was content not to have been involved. That it was made was pleasing as many books are optioned and go no further.

Of the variety of styles of her books, Ms Harris sees all as similar, all inspired by her time as a teacher at a boys’ grammar school in Leeds. Each is set in a small community, is character based, and explores the masks constructed to facilitate acceptance and survival in society. She is interested in how even friends rarely know each other well, an obvious theme in her latest work.

As a former teacher Ms Harris is familiar with the issues she explores. She commented that, when writing fiction, fact must often be toned down or readers will not find the thread realistic. She sets her books in the past as that is what she has experienced. She believes that most teachers will have had to deal with the problem of a special little friend amongst their pupils.

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We were treated to a couple of readings from Different Class before questions were invited from the capacity audience. These were fielded with humour and a sprinkling of anecdotes. I particularly enjoyed hearing of the young Ms Harris who, on arriving for her first day teaching at Leeds Grammar School wearing a smart trouser suit, was informed by the second master that ladies must wear skirts or frocks. The next day she donned a red PVC mini skirt and long boots, carrying the trouser suit over her arm. She was permitted to change.

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It was disappointing when the bookshop manager called time, although we were then invited to come forward and have our books signed. Once again Ms Harris showed warmth and friendship and I regretted my inability to engage in chat. It was a fascinating and enjoyable evening.

The photos I took did not come out as well as I had hoped – I failed to capture the smile in the author’s eyes and the fun she conveyed. My new phone has a camera I find tricky to operate. Or perhaps it is simply that a lovely personality shines through the masks constructed for the public, and such things require that you be there.

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Different Class is published by Doubleday and is available to buy now.

 

Book Review: Different Class

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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.