Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Gentlemen and Players - Joanne Harris
I finished this book this afternoon and since then it has stayed with me rather strongly. I imagine among other things, for this book to smell like chalk, Gauloise, of old boys and new, strict form masters, pranks and pranksters, sarcasm, of all those things that belong to a prestigious grammar school and of a thin, reedy under current of deceit and violence. Joanne Harris has created a compelling portrait of a prestigious school, now poised at the brink of ruin. And on that canvas are all of those things that I have described above.
St. Oswald's Grammar school for boys is a school steeped in tradition and principle. For the boys that study there, St. Oswald's gives them that veneer, that edge. For the staff, men and women who have been with the school for decades and who have seen class after class of boys come and go, St. Oswald's is more than just a work place. It is all they know. It is home, and they are fiercely proud of it. None more so than Roy Straitley, sixty-five, the eccentric Latin master at the School who has spent his whole life at Oswald's. The staff at Oswald's is a patchwork bunch: There is Pat Bishop, the popular second master who is the very heart of the school, the less popular head, the newbies, forgetful Pearman, helpful Kitty Teague, the sanctimonious Geoff and Penny Nations. Over the years, the school has seen its share of successes and scandals, hush-ups, triumphs, it is protected by a powerful and dedicated old boy network; The great machination of St. Oswald's waits for none. The school it self matters more than anything and anyone else.
Into this place, one Michaelmas term, blows a sinister wind: there is a Jonah at the school. Someone with a grudge, someone who has come after fourteen years to exact a terrible revenge, someone who will not stop until St. Oswald's has been torn apart and brought to its knees. Slowly, pranks are played with a deeper intention; pranks no ordinary fun loving school boy would attempt, scandals brew and one by one things at the school start to go wrong and its loyal staff picked apart and framed wrongly for a series of shocking crimes. The culprit will stop at nothing: even murder. Who is this person? Why is there such a compulsive rage, recklessness and hatred in the revenge that the culprit has scripted for Oswald's? More importantly, can Oswald's seemingly inevitable hurtle towards ruin be stopped?
Without giving away anything, I will add this for the culprit: that a human being could act so destructively, for reasons small and big sent chills down my spine and Joanne Harris has done a splendid job at leaving things the way she did. In my opinion, the ending could not have been more perfect. No languid read this, there will still be some unease when you have closed the book, which is after all, natural. Things go on. Sometimes there is a satisfactory finish to things, sometimes there isn't. You don't stop living. More importantly, Oswald's will not stop. There will still be generations and generations of boys to be taught, come what may even after the worst of scandals.
Joanne Harris is better known for her Chocolat. Although I enjoyed Chocolat, I will call this book superior in the way she has handled the plot, the fantastic way she has described the life of a school and the luscious prose. Read the Gentlemen and Players on a long train journey, bus ride, an interminably long afternoon, a sleepless night. With the narration alternating interestingly between the perspectives of Roy Straitley and the culprit, it will leave you turning page after page. Joanne Harris has truly come into her own with this one.