Different Class by Joanne Harris

Crisis measures…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

different classSt 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.

Joanne Harris
Joanne Harris

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.

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Book 16
Book 16

37 thoughts on “Different Class by Joanne Harris

  1. The issues around what goes on in schools, and the relationships among teachers and pupils is such a hot topic now, FictionFan! Just on that score I’d be interested to read what Harris has to say about it. And I happen to like the past/present connections in a story, if they’re done convincingly. Still, I know just what you mean about a ‘draggy middle’ and an ending that pushes things. Hmm….I think this is going on my radar, as the topic is really interesting to me…

    • Absolutely – it’s turned into a bit of a minefield! I remember when teachers ruled with rods of iron and woe betide any child who dared misbehave. I do think it’s better now on the whole, but I also think the job of teachers has become incredibly difficult – they seem to be expected to be surrogate parents as well as teachers to a large degree now. Yes, I think the past/present thing can really work too – in this one, it was that she kinda hid who she was talking about in the past sections that began to irritate and confuse me. But I did love Mr Straitley! 🙂

  2. Sounds somewhat interesting, but if it confused you it would definitely confuse me! I don’t mind being deliberately confused by a novel, but this sounds more like it has been clumsily handled. The whole teacher / pupil dynamic is a current topic, at least – but the ‘past coming back to haunt’ is a bit of a tiresome plot ploy unless it is done quite brilliantly.

  3. I had to look up whether this was the same Harris who wrote Chocolat and Five Quarters of the Orange, because the subject matter is so different in this book. Even though Straitley seems like an interesting narrator, I think I might pass on this one.

    • I know – those were the books I knew her for too and this seemed so different! But then i discovered she’d actually done an earlier book set in St Oswald’s too – Gentlemen & Players – so she’s clearly branched out since I last read her. As you’ll have gathered I have mixed feelings about this one, so won’t try to change your mind – overall, I enjoyed it, but with quite a lot of reservations…

  4. I agree with you about what’s happening in education – things were a lot simpler when we were young. Nothing would induce me to be a teacher now, and I do sympathise with the Mr Straitleys of this world – it must be awful to see your life’s work destroyed by people who’ve never set foot in a classroom. Don’t think I’ll add this to my ever expanding list.

    • Yes, it was quite perceptive about that aspect of schools and very funny in a bitter kind of way. Just a pity the rest of the book didn’t really match up to it. I did think that Mr Straitley sounded rather like us when we get onto one of our rants about education/healthcare/health&safety etc… 😉

  5. Hmm, sounds like this one was screaming for another round of editing, especially through that bulky middle. I like the idea of telling it through a teacher’s eyes, but that business with the diary seems like a poor addendum. Too bad the master’s tale wasn’t sufficient to carry the work alone. Thanks for an excellent review, though!

    • Oh, I feel that about nearly every book I read at the moment – I’m sure publishers must be encouraging writers to make their books longer for some reason. But since so many people complain about mid-section dragging, I can’t imagine why! I did think this one would have been better without the crime plot at all, and just concentrated on the teachers/managers conflict. Oh, well!

  6. Hmm – you were kinder to it than I was. It just made 3 stars, so escaped being blogged. I think whatever she writes, she seems to write again. I enjoyed Gentlemen and Players more, though that didn’t reach my blog either.

    • Yes, I think the difference is that I haven’t read Gentlemen & Players, so at least I didn’t have that feeling of it all being repeated. But otherwise I think we had some of the same issues with it. A pity, because she does write well, but I’m not sure crime is really her forte – and she does tend to rabbit on a bit…

  7. Oh Fiction Fan when that review started I thought I’d made a huge error in giving it a miss (having read other reviews) but it seems overall, I don’t think I did. My latest bugbear of saggy middles in books so I’d need to wait until I was feeling kinder.

    • So many saggy middles in books at the moment! I feel it’s causing my reviews to have saggy middles too – I start out all enthusiastic and then it starts to go downhill… 😉 I must say there was a lot to enjoy in this one though, but the crime plot wasn’t the best in the world…

    • It’s getting loads of positive reviews so I really hope I haven’t put you off! Definitely the good stuff outweighed the less good for me – I loved Mr Straitley’s voice. Hope you enjoy it…

      Thanks for popping in and commenting. 😀

  8. That’s a shame – I was looking forward to reading this as I loved Gentlemen and Players, which I read in April 2007, just before I began my blog and so I have just this brief note about it, ‘Excellent – compelling’. That’s the sort of note I used to make before blogging, not terribly helpful now. But my memory flickered when I read your review – I think the plot is quite like G&P.

    As for being confused that is happening to me far too often – I thought it must be me, but now I’m thinking maybe it’s the books – and too many of them do have saggy middles!

    • Hopefully you may well love this one too. I very nearly loved it – in fact, for the first half I was sure I was going to love it. I suspect my overall response to it might have been to do with the fact that I worked in a school and I felt it became too unrealistic as it went on. Haha! I’m the same – worse, in fact. I didn’t used to keep any record of my reading at all and frequently can’t even remember if I read a book much less whether I enjoyed it! That’s partly what made me start reviewing in the first place…

      Thank goodness! I was really beginning to think it must be me… 😉

  9. I really, really liked Mr Straitley, and have been waiting with interest to find out what you thought of this book. I enjoyed it more than you did, but I’m not very good at reading critically. I do admit to being confused by the nicknames and didn’t figure out who was who until the end.

    • I often wish I was less critical because I really don’t (usually) want to put people off. I usually enjoy reading even the books I’m critical about – for me, the process of working out what I liked and didn’t about them is half of the fun of reading. I loved Mr Straitley and, even if I wasn’t so keen on the diary bits and the ending, his bits made the book well worth reading. I might even read Gentlemen & Players sometime… 🙂

      • I wish I was more critical and had a better eye for detail. Maybe I should try waiting longer before reviewing to see what sticks in the mind after a few days. I’ve never completely loved a Joanne Harris book. She has wonderful characters, eg Mr Straitley, but something weird or cryptic going on which loses me. I did enjoy this though.

        • If I wait more than a couple of days I start forgetting all the details, which is why I now take ridiculously long notes. But even then I quite often find I haven’t made a note of the main names or something! I’m much the same with Harris – I like her writing more than the books. I did love Chocolat but I’m not sure if I still would if I re-read it now – I think I’m more demanding since I started reviewing, which isn’t really a good thing.

  10. This year, I read and loved A Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris; my first Harris read. I am keen to read more but looking at the huge genre shift in this book it doesn’t sound like this should be my next read.

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