Book Review of “Different Class” by Joanne Harris.
Much to the chagrin and worry of the aging Latin Master, Mr. Straightly, John Harrington is back at St. Oswald’s, but this time he’s not a student; he’s the new Head. Harrington has some ideas of how he wants to bring St. Oswald’s into the 21st century, but modernizing this old institution isn’t going to be easy. Computers, renovations, marketing, re-branding and even uniting St. Oswald’s sister school to finally introduce mixed classes are great ideas, but even they can’t lay the past to rest. In Harris’ latest novel we find out how sinister forces from the past could jeopardize this old school’s future.
I’ve been reading Harris for many years now, and I find her work to be very enjoyable. She has her vicissitudes, of course, but she really shines at character and plot development. The last novel of hers I read was “Gentlemen and Players” which I thought was absolutely genius. That’s why when I heard that this new novel was also set at the boys’ school of St. Oswald’s, I knew I had to read it. It was only after I finished reading this that I discovered this was Harris’ the third St. Oswald novel. Thankfully, I found out that this book takes place one year after “Gentlemen and Players,” while the second book she wrote takes place four years after this book. Therefore, while I’m not reading these in the order she wrote them, I do seem to be reading them in chronological order regarding the action. Harris noted in a reply to one of her readers on Goodreads that she intended them all to be stand-alone. I have to agree, although there are a couple of references here that might confuse people who haven’t read “Gentlemen.”
That aside, as I already mentioned, Harris really knows how to develop characters and a construct a fascinating plot, and this book is an excellent example of how she blends the two. Personally, I think that she does this better with the darker stories surrounding the characters at St. Oswald’s than she does in the lighter books set in France (beginning with her famous book, “Chocolat“). Of the books set in France that I’ve read, this melding of plot and characters came through the best in “Five Quarters of the Orange,” probably because it was the darkest of her three culinary fiction books. The major mechanic that Harris employs is keeping the identity of one of the characters in shadows of secrecy for as long as possible. Of course, as we read, we make various assumptions about this person. When Harris eventually reveals this character, you will certainly be stunned. Furthermore, she waits to do this until she’s just at the beginning of building to the big climax, taking us from a sudden surprise and then directly into the action speeding up – very much roller-coaster style. Harris used this with her “mole” in the first St. Oswald book, who was one the primary characters of the novel. In this book, Harris hides two different characters, one of which narrates about half of the book (shared with Mr. Straightly), and the other is a lesser, but pivotal character to the story. The way Harris manipulates her readers using this is nearly genius, and of a caliber that should place her alongside any of our favorite mystery writers.
I should mention that one reviewer of this book said that they thought Harris focused too much on Mr. Straightly’s disapproval regarding the modernization of St. Oswald’s, almost to the point of his sounding like an annoying, stuck-in-the-mud, crybaby. While this did come into play quite a bit throughout the book, I didn’t find those passages at all distracting; I thought they were quite appropriate, particularly because they fit in well with so many other elements of the story. Most importantly, the old vs. new elements were essential to absolutely all of the characters’ development, without whom there wouldn’t be a story at all. I also found that sometimes these added a touch of humor as counterpoint to the more ominous feeling sections, and in a couple of cases, they were actually important to the plot as well.
However, while I disagree with that reviewer’s assessment (who, I believe gave the book only three stars), I do have to say that I enjoyed “Gentlemen” just a touch more than this book. I think this is because in that novel Harris did a better job in building up the menacing sections of the story, as well as in surprising the reader. Even so, I think that I can’t rate this novel with anything less than four and a half stars out of five, and I can warmly recommend it. (Now it looks like I’ll have to get the other St. Oswald’s book, “Blueeyedboy.”)
“Different Class” by Joanne Harris, published by Random House UK, Transworld Publishers/Doubleday, released April 21, 2016 in the UK is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery and The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literacy) as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.