Different Class
PublisherDoubleday
Date Published21 April 2016
 
 
ISBN-100385619235
ISBN-13978-0385619233
Formathardcover
Pages416
Price£ 18.99

Different Class

by Joanne Harris

Roy Straitley has been a Latin master at St Oswald’s for 30 years. When a new head is appointed, Straitley is shocked to discover that he is an old boy whom he had always distrusted.


Review

This is Joanne Harris’s second novel set in St Oswald’s and featuring Latin master Roy Straitley. The story begins at the start of the Michaelmas term in 2005. St Oswald’s is immediately identifiable as a very traditional type of independent grammar school. It has houses and housemasters, it has forms and form masters, and there is a special procedure called ‘placing on report’ for any boy who breaks the (often trivial) rules.
 
Roy Straitley has been there as a Latin master for 30 years and is now so entrenched that he can’t imagine himself being anywhere else. Whilst aware of the requirements of tradition, he is rather more generous towards his form – ‘the Brodie Boys’ - than some other masters, and has gained their respect. He is now close to retirement, something to which he is not looking forward, but which suddenly seems more attractive when he discovers that the newly-appointed head is a former pupil of the school whom he had disliked intensely and distrusted even more. There had been friction between them and he had almost cost Straitley his job. He knows that the new head is not the type to forgive and forget and that life is going to become difficult for him.

John Harrington is not just any old head but a Superhead who has already ‘saved’ two failing schools and has been asked to take on St Oswald’s which has not been going through the best of times. He knows all the right words – ‘gender awareness’, ‘cultural sensitivity’, ‘abuse situations’, and in his inaugural talk to the staff, explains how the school is to be ‘rebranded’.

There is a certain wit and humour about the opening to the novel as we become familiar with Straitley’s views. His doctor, a former pupil, has advised him to watch his smoking and drinking, but Straitley is reluctant to take advice from somebody who never knew the difference between the present and the past participle. His approach to education is a little old fashioned, but not ungenerous. His views, for example, on gays are rather more liberal than those of certain other staff members.

However, he believes that parents should be kept away from their sons’ education and objects strongly to the new head’s plans for frequent assessment of the teaching staff – even by boys! When the masters’ pigeon holes are replaced by work stations and the honours boards by display boards for parents – called ‘customers’ by Harrington - he realises that there will be no place for him under this new regime. It will be Harrington or him.

It is this struggle that informs the remainder of the novel, which becomes correspondingly darker as the reader is taken back in time and another voice begins to be heard. The year is 1981, almost a quarter of a century earlier, and the voice is that of a young boy who has just arrived at the school. He is writing to someone he calls Mousey and it is immediately clear from the tone that he hates St Oswald’s and its teaching staff, particularly Mr Straitley. The animal analogy extends also to the boys whom he sees as dogs running in packs and obedient to their masters’ whims. He says he hates dogs, adding ominously that he once had one, but not for long. There is clearly a suppressed violence about this unnamed boy, a violence which, we feel, will not remain suppressed.

The structure of the novel is established as, immediately after this chapter, we return to 2005. There are two narrators – Straitley, mainly concerned with his private duel with Harrington, and the anonymous boy, pouring out his hatred and unhappiness in his letters to Mousey. It is clear that the two conflicts – Straitley with Harrington and the sociopathic boy with everybody and everything – will form the basis of the plot and that they will, in fact, become linked. Such is the conviction behind the writing that the reader is fascinated by the two stories and is impatient to learn the outcome.

The characterisation is always totally convincing. Straitley is the sort of person to be found in such a school – devoted to his subject, serious in his desire to communicate what he sees is important, but perhaps a little stuffy occasionally. Clarke is the kind of teacher who can make himself popular with boys by attempting to understand them, but without toadying to them. Harrington and his two assistants are particularly well portrayed as they attempt not actually to improve the school in any way, but merely to give the impression of improving it with their constant psychobabble.

The denouement is exciting and totally surprising to the reader, who will nonetheless recognise that they had all along been free to make up their own mind about what was happening.

It is not, however, simply a thrilling and unexpected ending to the novel. We are left with a sense of deep sadness as one life is totally devastated, particularly since the person to blame seemed always destined – one might say predestined – to act and think in the way they did.

Reviewed 14 May 2016 by Arnold Taylor