11/06/2008

Gentlemen and Players (by Joanne Harris)

I've enjoyed Joanne Harris's 'food' related novels, of which 'Chocolat' is probably the best-known of them. While I'm slightly uncomfortable with some of the low-key occult flavour that creeps into some of them, I find her writing and characterisation strong enough that I'm always keen to read more of her books - at least, so far.

'Gentlemen and Players' is very different from everything else I've read by this author. It opens with the rather shocking statement:

"If there's one thing I've learned in the past fifteen years, it's this: that murder is really no big deal."

The narrator at this stage is an adult, looking back on childhood years fifteen years previously when a rather run-down boys' private school, St Oswald's, was out of bounds. The narrator (whose name we do not learn until the final chapters) attended a mixed comprehensive instead, and came from a broken home.

There's another narrator, too - Roy Straitley, the Latin teacher at this private school, who has been teaching for thirty-three years, and is looking forward to his 'century' - the hundredth term. He might retire some time soon; indeed, some members of staff feel he should already have retired. They feel that classics study is unecessary, and that Mr Straitley is getting too old to continue. Not that he has any problem with discipline - he's evidently an excellent teacher who has good rapport with his students - but he is slowing down a little, and feeling a few twinges in the region of his heart.

The two narrators alternate, gradually building up the story of both present and past. Clearly there was some scandal back fifteen years preveiously; something so shocking that the first narrator has managed to return to the school as a teacher, with false references, in the hope of taking some kind of revenge. And as the first sentence hints, it's going to be fairly drastic.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel. It's very much character-driven, but the genre is a sort of public school thriller. It's very well-written, introducing minor characters gradually and making most of them memorable; the differing viewpoints, while similar in style, also show very different views of school life and the staff and pupils in general.

There's some tension, inevitably, but not so much as to give me nightmares; instead it made this quite a page-turner, a book I could hardly put down by the time I was half-way through. There are some dramatic revelations in the final chapters, one of which I was expecting, but not all of them. The ending itself was open but satisfying.

All in all, I very much enjoyed 'Gentlemen and Players'. Recommended. Published in 2005; available in Kindle form as well as paperback. Often found second-hand.

Review copyright © Sue's Book Reviews, 11th June 2008

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