😀 😀 😀 🙂
St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys has been put under crisis measures after a scandal hit the school the previous year (in Gentleman & Players, apparently – a book I haven’t read). It’s 2005 and Classics master Roy Straitley is horrified at the changes being forced on this ancient and old-fashioned establishment, not least the introduction of girls into the Sixth Form. But things get worse when he meets the new headmaster and discovers him to be Harrington, an ex-pupil who was involved in events, as yet unspecified, that rocked the school back in 1981. Straitley neither likes nor trusts Harrington, and is convinced Harrington is trying to force him into retirement. But St Oswald’s has been Straitley’s life and he’s determined to stay and fight for the school’s traditions.
Most of the book is narrated by Straitley (first person, past tense) and his voice is excellent. There’s a lot of barbed humour in it as he mocks the political correctness and health-and-safety-ism that has infested all of our public services, but perhaps education worst of all. He shows quite clearly how hard it is for teachers to develop any kind of rapport with pupils without being at risk of being accused of inappropriateness or worse. And he shows that pupils are well aware of this and can use it as a weapon, subtly shifting the power balance in the classroom. Through Straitley’s eyes, we see the more ridiculous aspects of the new culture of managerialism that is imposed on “failing” schools – target-driven, goals-orientated and all the other hideous jargon that comes with that. I loved Straitley’s voice – his views are exaggerated, but just enough to make the thing deliciously humorous while still making some valid observations.
The other strand comes in the form of a diary written by an unnamed pupil, partly back in 1981 and partly in the present day (2005). This tells of three new boys who all started at St Oswald’s at the same time and therefore became rather unlikely friends. Each of these boys has a secret of some kind. The diarist gives them all nicknames, so that we’re not entirely sure who they are in the present day, but we know that one of them must be Harrington. This section is not nearly so successful. The boy’s voice didn’t convince me as that of a 14-year-old, nor did it change for the sections when he was writing as an adult. This, combined with the nicknames, meant I found myself frequently confused – not in that way when a skilled author leads one delightfully up various alleyways and dead-ends, but simply confused as to who was who and what time period we were in, finding I was frequently referring back to the chapter headings for clarification.
The plot follows the currently popular pattern of events in the past coming back to haunt the present, and there are elements of bullying and abuse in both sections. To be honest, I feel Harris handles this rather clumsily, seeming to ask the reader to take a somewhat lenient view of things that this reader doesn’t feel very lenient about – grooming, sexual abuse of children by teachers etc. Somehow I felt that Harris had got so involved in her mockery of current social trendiness that she took it a little far, towards subjects where the humour began to feel rather tasteless.
While I continued to enjoy Straitley’s voice all the way through, the book dragged quite a bit in the middle with nothing much happening to move things forward. And when the plot finally played out, it crossed the credibility line so often it began to feel too farcical to be taken seriously, and yet not quite humorous enough to be a black comedy.
Overall, I’m struggling to rate it. I did enjoy Harris’ writing and Straitley as a character, and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing up to about half way. But I felt it became messy in the end, and my own political correctness got in the way of being happy at a resolution that I felt was morally murky at best. I felt that Harris wanted me to sympathise with characters whom I found increasingly unsympathetic. So in the end it gets 3½ stars from me – well worth reading, but didn’t quite live up to my early hopes for it.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.