Books

Gentlemen & Players
Joanne Harris
DoubledayA new academic year and the venerable halls of St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys are beset by change in its most pressing guise: progress. But amid the advance of Information Technology, the influx of new staff and the arrival of a fresh crop of boys, old ghosts are walking and a scandal long since buried is scratching its way to the surface.
With her ninth novel, Harris exploits the dark and chillingly absurd facets of reality which she first drew on in last year’s collection of short stories Jigs and Reels. Published as a deliberate departure from the joie de vivre of her Whitbread nominated breakthrough Chocolat and the novels that followed, the collection showcased a new side to Harris.
Not steeped in the Gallic sensuousness which pervades much of this author’s work, Gentleman & Players is nonetheless wrought with rich and distinctive prose. A former teacher herself, Harris seems to delight in recalling the climate of the staff room and sharp observations are made vivid in lush description. Her image of the school as a living organism in itself, creative yet endlessly consuming, provides a necessary constant amid the ever shifting perspective of the reader.
Narrative is divided between voices of the past and the present, the old and the young. Straitley, veteran Latin master at St Oswald’s, is devoted to his pupils. He binds himself to the school and to tradition, remaining indignant in the face of enforced retirement and a heart condition. His counterpoint Snyde seethes with quiet megalomania, consumed by a twisted relation to St Oswald’s. The school is to Snyde a haven and a torment. It is the pinnacle of childhood aspiration, an escape from the daily hell of Sunnybank Park Comprehensive and the slur-spoken abuse of an alcoholic father. It is also the unforgiving observer of this pinchbeck imposter amid its golden boys.
Gentlemen & Players fits the bill as a murder mystery, but its meticulous chaos harbours a criminal unlike most: one who has been invisible for too long and is crying out to be seen. Harris might tell us that “a crime unseen is a crime unpunished,” but she is equally willing to admit that being seen is half the fun.ARCHIVE: 0th week MT 2005