It’s funny really: I’ve spent most of my life with completely the wrong impression of Joanne Harris, writing her off as an author of cutesy French tales like Chocolat (which perhaps isn’t particularly cutesy itself; I must reread it). And yet she’s so much more than that. She’s written ironic mythical fantasy (The Gospel of Loki), nuanced historical fiction (Holy Fools) and now, I discover, gripping thrillers. I came to Gentlemen & Players because I have a soft spot for fiction set in schools (blame The History Boys, I suppose), and I was attracted by this book’s setting at St Oswald’s: a self-consciously old-fashioned private school for boys. But I stayed for the increasingly compelling tale of Machiavellian revenge, as the school unwittingly nurtures a viper in its bosom: someone with an old grudge against St Oswald’s, who has finally decided to take down the school bit by bit from within. And, when I finished the book, I was sorely tempted to go right back to the beginning and start again, because Harris pulls off a piece of narrative legerdemain that is so completely brilliant that I wanted to revisit everything with full understanding.
We have two narrators in this novel: one, marked with a King, is Roy Straitley, Latin master at St Oswald’s of ninety-nine terms’ standing and determined to reach his Centenary next term. As the new school year starts, he relishes a return to his cherished milieu of chalk dust, Latin insults and gerunds, looking forward to being reunited with his form and (to some extent) with the rivalries and wary alliances of his colleagues. But, even before term starts, Straitley realises that the winds of change are becoming irresistible. The expansionist forces of the German department are slowly inching their way into his crumbling domain, and the New Head is placing ever greater emphasis on computers and modernising – both things that Straitley doesn’t understand and openly loathes. The barbarians are at the gates. But at least Straitley has diversion in the form of the new teachers: a clutch of young people just starting out on their careers, ready to be categorised, weighed up and watched.
What Straitley doesn’t know is that one of these new, fresh-faced teachers is nursing a deep grudge against St Oswald’s: a hatred honed and tended for over ten years, and finally ready to unleash itself against the school’s bastions. This is our other narrator who, for the sake of sustaining the mystery, I’ll call the Pawn. The Pawn and Straitley alternate their chapters and so we watch as the Pawn’s careful plans begin to take shape, unleashing chaos and distress in Straitley’s cosy world. And we hear how things came to this point, learning the history of the Pawn’s miserable youth. Poor Pawn: a bookish child who ends up moving into the Gatehouse of St Oswald’s with John Snyde (newly-appointed Head Porter, closet alcoholic, newly-divorced husband making a new start, and the Pawn’s substandard father). To make matters worse, the Pawn is an aspiring intellectual: bright, eager for knowledge, and yet condemned to the local comprehensive at Sunnybank, with its bullies and its razor-sharp taste for weakness. And all the time, St Oswald’s sits at the end of the drive like an unattainable golden city – everything the Pawn wants and yet can never have – its forbidden territories shining with tradition, and the unattainable sheen of wealth. The Pawn tries to sneak into the school’s life, pilfering pieces of uniform from the lost-property boxes, stealing Snyde’s keys and sneaking around corridors, slowly daring to mingle in disguise with the St Oswald’s boys – but everything changes with the development of a life-changing friendship. When Leon Mitchell walks into the Pawn’s life, things shift, and simple envy becomes shunted into a much darker and more dangerous path.
Harris is a clever writer in so many ways, and you don’t appreciate all of them until you’ve finished (trust me: like me you’ll want to go back to the beginning and read it all again). The names she chooses for her characters are often nudges to the reader about the associated personalities: Straitley; Strange; Meek; Keane; Dare; Light; Bishop; Knight – but there’s also a whiff of chess about some of them, because the novel as a whole (as you see from the symbols designating Straitley’s and the Pawn’s narrations) is underlaid by the subtle strategy, take-and-sacrifice of chess. Watching the Pawn’s plans unfold, I became so completely gripped that I read almost the entire thing in one afternoon, and it was something of a joy to lose myself in something so well-written and so, so smart. The only reason I’ve given it four stars rather than four and a half is because the book’s chief impact can’t be repeated on a second reading. Once you know the full story, you know it, and while a reread will be satisfying, it won’t ever capture quite the same magic.
Thoroughly recommended. Even before I read this, I’d bought Harris’s two other novels from the loosely-associated series – blueeyedboy and Different Class – and now I can’t wait to read them; though I shall try to pace myself…
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