Book Review: A Narrow Door

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This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I follow Joanne Harris on Twitter and had been looking forward to reading A Narrow Door since she mentioned some time ago that her work in progress was a return to St Oswald’s school in Malbry. Whilst not a particular fan of Dark Academia as a genre, I very much enjoyed two of the previous books in this series – Gentlemen and Players and Different Class. The books are described as psychological thrillers and I was expecting the tense and taut pacing of the earlier works. Sadly, I struggled to engage this time round.

The story is told from two points of view and across two main timelines. Roy Straitley, the elderly Classics teacher now with worrying health issues, makes a return although he mostly serves as a listening ear, only occasionally adding a noteworthy opinion. The protagonist is Rebecca Buckfast, the new headteacher. It is made clear that appointing a woman to this role is quite shocking in such a traditional setting. She has taken the reins in the year that the Boys Grammar School merges with its sister school, Mulberry House, thereby admitting girls to the hallowed halls. In an attempt to create a fresh start after two difficult years, St Oswald’s has been rebranded an Academy.

The opening draws the reader in immediately. There are introductions to other members of the teaching staff, alongside key pupils, bringing readers who are new to the series up to speed on internal loyalties and enmities. References are made to events that damaged the school’s reputation and therefore finances – these were the plotlines of the earlier books in the series. Aspects mentioned would be better understood if the stories were read in order.

Rebecca Buckfast has a high opinion of herself and is proud of her appointment, believing she has worked harder for it than a man would have to. She also admits in the first chapter that she has committed two murders. The rest of the book contains her life story, as she tells it to Roy. She is his boss yet reveals intimate details, including aspects of her sex life. To this reader such divulgences felt inappropriate. The author worked as a teacher so maybe such behaviour happens. Fiction, of course, is often not realistic. Nevertheless, the way this book is structured too often jarred.

The plot revolves around the fallout from a pivotal event that occurred when Rebecca was five years old. At the end of the school year her teenage brother, Conrad, disappeared from his school – the neighbouring King Henry’s Grammar – never to be seen again. All but his parents believe he is dead. The parents’ lives paused on the day Conrad went missing. This has shadowed Rebecca’s life. She believes her parents remained sad that the wrong child stayed with them.

Rebecca struggled as a single, teenage mother yet managed to qualify as a teacher. She met her partner, Dominic, when they both worked at the local comprehensive. He was unhappy when she accepted a role at St Henry’s. Roy grows more interested in the history she is telling him when he realises her time there coincided with that of his long time friend, Eric, whose reputation couldn’t survive damaging allegations that previously shocked Roy to the core.

As is to be expected in a thriller: breadcrumbs are dropped before reveals are made; certain characters turn out to be not quite what they seemed; memory skews what later pulls threads together; and our main narrator proves she is not averse to underhand measures to get her way. There are hat tips to contemporary issues such as the treatment of gay and transgender pupils. There is an excellent ‘prank’ by Roy’s favoured Brodie Boys.

I enjoyed the ending, and not just because I could now stop reading a story that seemed at times to move along glacially. This is not a bad book but is not as good as I have come to expect from the author. Despite all the revelations, too many characters lacked sufficient depth, their role coming across as inauthentic. My main gripe remains that I wasn’t captivated as previously in the series.

Any Cop?: A thriller that failed to thrill this reader.

Jackie Law

Book Review: blueeyedboy

blueeyedboy, by Joanne Harris, is the second book in the author’s Malbry Series – psychological thrillers set in the fictional Yorkshire town. Having enjoyed Gentlemen & Players and Different Class, I was eager to read the remaining instalment. Although there are linked characters across the three books they are standalone stories. The structure of this one is notably different. Beware the media quotes on the cover telling the reader there is an ‘almighty twist’ in the tale and an unreliable narrator. While these elements are not unexpected in the genre, the hype did raise certain expectations. That I had guessed where the ending was going by the time I got there left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed.

The story is told in the form of a web journal called badguysrock. Most entries are written by the titular blueeyedboy with additions by one of his fellow members of the online group, Albertine. They and some of the post commentators appear to know each other offline. Who each of them is and their relationships to each other are kept vague initially to enable a slow reveal. blueeyedboy is writing what he claims to be fiction. The reader must tease out what is the truth from: the varying strands, changing details, and snapshots of key scenes.

blueeyedboy is one of three siblings born to a domineering matriarch who violently imposes her will on her children. The coercion and vicious punishments described are disturbing to read. That blueyedboy still lives with the women can only, perhaps, be properly understood by someone who has suffered domestic violence. blueeyedboy dreams of killing his mother. He writes in the web journal of previous murders he orchestrated but then reminds readers that his writing is fiction.

There are references to a dead girl, Emily White, who was regarded as a prodigy. There are also a number of women from the town who, over the course of his life, upset blueeyedboy and who are now dead. The strands of fact and fiction are kept shadowed by the changing details, and then additions by Albertine.

All of the characters interacted over several decades. Class boundaries caused resentments. The upper hand was gained on occasion through lies and threats. A wealthy gentlemen, Dr Peacock, took an interest when he discovered children had synaesthesia – the subject of a book he was writing. Their parents vied for the attention this presented, the chance for their offspring to be recognised as special by the wider community.

The portrayal of parenting is devastating. While most may not beat their children with a length of electric cable as blueeyedboy’s mother does, there are mental wounds inflicted when a child fails to live up to much vaunted expectations. Parents are eager for their peers to acknowledge the admirable qualities and talents of their children to the extent that young people are scarred when they feel they have disappointed. When do support and encouragement morph into parental obsession?

As the story unfolds and the nature of relationships is revealed there remains a question over what the truth may be as regards certain details. Names and nicknames overlap requiring a degree of going back through the text to work out who is being written about and how they met their end. blueeyedboy’s fictions are at times confusing. Albertine has memories she declined to share during attempts at investigation.

By the end of the book it is possible to work out what happened to most of the characters but, as a linear read, this was at times confusing. It is a puzzle whose pieces can shift in shape. There are themes explored – such as the parenting fails and domestic abuse – that add depth and deserve consideration. Compared to the other books in the series however, it is not as satisfying to read.

blueeyedboy is published by Black Swan. 

Book Review: Gentlemen and Players

Gentlemen & Players, by Joanne Harris, is the first book in the author’s Malbry Series. The story is set in and around St Oswald’s, an old and long established boys’ grammar school in the north of England. The timeline moves between the present – when a new cohort of teachers arrive for the start of the academic year – and the years when one of these individuals was a child enacting a daring deception in a bid to reinvent themselves.

The child is nine years old when their tale opens. Living in the school gatehouse – a perk of Father’s job as porter – they are aware that the grounds and school are out of bounds. Nevertheless, they dare to sneak in, thereby discovering that no action will be taken so long as they remain invisible.

The child grows bolder. Keys are taken from Father and the main building breached. Over time the old building’s layout, the school timetable, and many of the teachers become familiar. The child covets the privilege of the wealthy pupils in their rarefied existence.

The child’s mother left her little family and does not maintain contact. Father is a drunk who at times grows violent. Being small in stature and lacking sporting prowess, the child is a victim of bullies at the local state schools attended. To escape this misery, a St Oswald’s uniform is pilfered and – renamed as Julian – the child starts to blend in occasionally as a pupil. A friendship is formed with another misfit. Leon and Julian delight in breaking rules within school and in the town when freed.

In the present day, the new teachers are observed by Roy Straitley – a Latin master nearing retirement who attended St Oswald’s as a boy and has worked there for more than thirty years. During this time scandals have been weathered – including improprieties and tragedies. Now Straitley is resisting changes being enforced as the new head attempts to modernise. Straitley’s caustic wit and underlying humanity make him a valuable character in portraying what a school can be.

“The reality is the stone; the tradition; the permanence of St Oswald’s. Staff come, staff go. Sometimes they die. Sometimes even boys die; but St Oswald’s endures, and as I have grown older I have taken increasing comfort from this.”

Now an adult in the guise of one of the new teachers, the child has returned seeking revenge. Plot development gradually explains what happened back in the day and why they wish to bring St Oswald’s to its knees. From the opening line the reader knows that, in this teacher’s opinion, ‘murder is really no big deal.’ The illicit St Oswald’s boy who remained invisible seeks both retribution and to finally be seen.

It took me some time to differentiate between voices – to work out, chapter by chapter, from whose perspective the narrative was being written. The many teachers and pupils introduced need to be remembered if threads are to be followed and understood. Although not difficult, this required a degree of concentration and occasional rereading.

Knowing that the author was once a teacher adds to the humour of many staff room observations. I enjoyed her comment to colleagues in the acknowledgements:

“any of you who may fear to meet yourselves in the pages of this book, rest assured: you’re not there”

Her characters are expertly drawn and recognisable as those who have haunted the corridors of every British school I have experienced as pupil and parent. Perhaps these didn’t all harbour a murderer but jealousies and resentments amongst both staff and pupils run as deep as depicted. The tension and mystery are tightly woven around more poignant revelations. The denouement is chilling but retains enough heart to leave the reader content.

Although perhaps not as well known as some of the author’s other works, the Malbry series is a personal favourite. The variety of characters along with the fine balance between dry humour and compelling thriller make for an enjoyable read.

Gentlemen & Players is published by Black Swan.

Book Review: The Strawberry Thief

“life is on loan, and all the things we find on the way – lovers, children, happiness – have to be given back in the end.”

The Strawberry Thief, by Joanne Harris, is the fourth book in a series that started twenty years ago with Chocolat. It is gently paced but with an underlying darkness, a hint of magic unleashing powers difficult to control. At the story’s centre is a young girl whose independence has been stymied by her mother’s love. The instinct to protect generates fear – for the future of parent as much as child. In many ways this is a coming of age tale across two generations. It is about a need for self-determination and finding the strength to let go.

Vianne Rocher is running her chocolaterie in the sleepy French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, living above the shop with her sixteen year old daughter, Rosette. Her older daughter, Anouk, is now in Paris with her boyfriend and is much missed. Rosette’s father, Roux, remains in his barge moored on the Tannes, restless but still a part of the family’s lives. The residents of Lansquenet are little changed – older of course but still thriving on gossip and its cause. Some changes though are inevitable – time cannot be held still, even here.

The story opens a week into Lent with the death of Narcisse, who owns the flower shop opposite the chocolaterie. His daughter is incensed to discover that he has left a patch of woodland to Rosette. Vianne’s younger daughter is regarded as a simpleton because she cannot speak in a way others can understand and is often restless when frustrated. Her skills at drawing go unregarded despite the stories they tell.

“Maman always says that stories are what keep us alive; the stories people tell us, and scatter like thistledown on the wind. And stories are all that’s left when we’re gone”

Narcisse leaves his story to the local priest, Reynaud, who struggles to read the hand written pages bequeathed with anything other than fear over what they may reveal about him. Since he was a young boy Reynaud has carried a terrible secret. If revealed he believes the life he has built in Lansquenet will be destroyed.

Told from the points of view of Reynaud, Vianne and Rosette, the ripples created by the old man’s death bring with them adjustments to the village dynamic that Vianne vehemently resists. Once a free agent, travelling with the wind, she is now fearful that the roots she has put down will not be enough to hold her daughters within her sphere. Anouk may have moved away but Vianne plans to hold fast to Rosette by whatever means necessary.

When a stranger sets up a business in the old flower shop, Vianne senses a challenge to her powers. Rosette, along with many of the villagers, is drawn to the stranger and what she can offer them. Vianne can see only a threat to Rosette’s continuing need for her. She vows to drive the stranger away and seeks allies.

The story unfolds around the strands of love, fear, greed and tolerance. Scattered between the present day happenings is the text of Narcisse’s history, gradually told and adding depth. There are obvious comparisons but mostly this older story offers an understanding of the long term repercussions of even the best intended actions.

A story of parents and their children; about the power shifts across generations; of clipping the wings of those who live with a need to soar.

Beautifully written with rich descriptions, especially of chocolate and the magic it can generate. This is a darkly delicious and emotionally satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orion.

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.