Book Review: A Narrow Door

narrow door

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.