BookBrowse Reviews Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris

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Gentlemen and Players

A Novel

by Joanne Harris

Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris X
Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2006, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2007, 448 pages

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A harrowing tale of cat and mouse set in an English private school

From the book jacket: For generations, privileged young men have attended St. Oswald's Grammar School for Boys, groomed for success by the likes of Roy Straitley, the eccentric Classics teacher who has been a fixture there for more than thirty years. But this year the wind of unwelcome change is blowing. Suits, paperwork, and information technology are beginning to overshadow St. Oswald's tradition, and Straitley is finally, and reluctantly, contemplating retirement. He is joined this term by five new faculty members, including one who -- unbeknownst to Straitley and everyone else -- holds intimate and dangerous knowledge of St. Oswald's ways and secrets. Harboring dark ties to the school's past, this young teacher has arrived with one terrible goal: to destroy St. Oswald's. As the new term gets under way, a number of incidents befall students and faculty alike. Beginning as small annoyances -- a lost pen, a misplaced coffee mug -- they are initially overlooked. But as the incidents escalate in both number and consequence, it soon becomes apparent that a darker undercurrent is stirring within the school. With St. Oswald's unraveling, only Straitley stands in the way of its ruin. The veteran teacher faces a formidable opponent, however -- a master player with a bitter grudge and a strategy that has been meticulously planned to the final move, a secret game with very real, very deadly consequences.

Comment: Gentlemen & Players is set inside the hallowed walls of St Oswald's Grammar School for Boys, an archaic establishment on the edge of an unnamed and unremarkable Northern English town (school motto: Audere, agere, auferre: To dare, to strive, to conquer). The story is narrated by three voices. The first is the Latin master Roy Straitley, just beginning his 100th term. The second is an unnamed man masquerading under false pretenses as a teacher who is intent on bringing the school to ruin The third voice belongs to a young adolescent boy thirteen years in the past who, as the son of St Oswald's caretaker but destined to attend the scruffy local state school, finds himself drawn to the august corridors of St Oswald's. In a daring moment he breaches the school's defenses (a "No Trespasser's" sign) and enters the school buildings, where he purloins a school uniform and strikes up a friendship with an older boy who assumes he is also an "Oswaldian".

Back in the present, St Oswald's is entering the age of technology and some of the old guard, especially anachronisms such as classics teachers, are hunkered down in their offices like soldiers in the trenches, defending themselves against the new guard who want to bring the school into the 21st century.

It would have been easy for Harris to play to the crowd and present St Oswald's as the epitome of an arrogant private British education; these elements are inevitably present but she balances them by also showing the allure of such a place - an allure that she knows first-hand (see "background").

At its heart, with its finite cast of characters from which we know the villain and the victims must come, Gentlemen and Players is a classic "country house" whodunit . However, it is also a deliciously complicated literary thriller set in two time periods with three narrative perspectives, which also serves as a fine cautionary tale. Harris, who hates to be typecast, has done it again - she's taken the risk of changing genres and carried it off in style!

Background: In an essay on her website, Joanne explains that she's wanted to write a school story ever since she left teaching, a job she enjoyed and thinks she was good at. She has particularly fond memories of Leeds Grammar School (LGS), the private school that she taught at for 12 years:

"... the eccentric layout; the proliferating vermin (my room in the Bell Tower was plagued by mice and haunted by pigeons); the weird traditions; the boys and staff. Women teachers were few; political correctness was at a minimum; junior staff incurred the wrath of seniors if they happened to sit in the wrong chair; academic gowns were worn for Assembly and tours of duty; Latin was compulsory. I loved it; I’d gone from Grange Hill* to Gormenghast* in a single move, and I was all set to stay there forever.

She has particularly fond memories of the ongoing soap opera that makes up the day-to-day life of a large secondary school, because all tightly knit communities are full of stories: "For a writer, it’s a perfect environment. It’s invigorating; intensely sociable; riddled with the unexpected." She confirms that some of the physical features of St Oswald's are based on LDS's old buildings that she taught in (before the school moved to spiffy new accommodation), such as Straitley's room which is based on her room. However, she says that she has also lifted elements from many other places she has known.

In response to the well worn question as to whether any of the characters are based on real people, and to the occasional accusation of typecasting, she simply says that "anyone who has taught knows that such characters exist in all staff rooms around the country". The country in question being the UK, of course.

Now, on to the all important question, is the plot based on real life? To which Harris replies, "I’m a writer. I make things up. And yet I defy anyone to make up anything that matches the strangeness and horror of real life. I’ve seen things in my years of teaching that I wouldn’t dare put into a book – not least, because no-one would believe me. And so this story is entirely fictional – in the same way that the plot of Five Quarters is completely fictional - although the darkness that underlies it is only too real .... This is not a true story. But it could have been."

*Grange Hill is the name of the school in the long running BBC series of the same name set in London comprehensive school. For more about comprehensive vs. grammar schools, see the side bar. Gormenghast is, of course, a reference to the fictional castle that stands at the heart of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy.

This review is from the February 7, 2007 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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