Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 02/20/18 10:55 AM

Book review: Different Class by Joanne Harris

 Different Class, Joanne Harris.  Doubleday Books

This is the third in the author`s psychological thrillers but it is a standalone story, and that`s how I read it.

Harris had me at Chocolat, years and years ago and though I`ve not always loved her other books in the same way, they always made for an engrossing read. What`s more, even the most whimsical of her stories had the dark undertow, very much seen and felt by the reader, running through them.

This one goes one better: it is engrossing, gripping, very, very dark. This is Harris at her best in creating an atmosphere of impending doom, not much of the capricious charm of A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String or Peaches for Monsieur le Cure here.

Harris splits the book into two, with two narrators taking the story along. One  of them is an elderly Latin Master at a grammar school in the north of England, and as you read, you realise the author has got the tone and feel of this character down pat. The other narrator is the villain, and you get the feeling that it`s Tom Riddle turned suave and back in H Potter`s life, even as you long for the takedown of this enigmatic but creepy character.

Mr Roy Straitley, the Latin beak, gets three new boys at the start of a fresh term and none of them are too likable, for reasons of their own. One of them, though,  becomes a particular thorn in the master`s flesh, someone he really takes a dislike to as a student, and then years later, is horrified to see the same boy return to St Oswald`s — as Headmaster.

Roy Straitley is quite the philosopher when it comes to teaching and young boys. “There is no risk assessment for life,“ he muses at one point, adding, “And life is what we are teaching.“ Elsewhere he tells us that “history has a habit of awarding the victories to small boys armed with slingshots.“ However, when he dismisses his charges as typical of their sex and age, (“Boys have a pleasing lack of depth, an emotional inarticulacy that means they talk about football, books, music, TV but rarely matters of the heart“), that`s when he flounders in the fast-gathering black waters that swirl around St Oswald`s and threaten to take the school, staff and students down.

Harris builds up the dread layer by layer. As for the red herring, it lurks in plain sight all the while, and is quite the most  deft piece of writing I’ve seen in a long time.

All the characters, the heroes and the villains, make dry, intelligent digs, and we are constantly reminded that we are reading clever writing. Mr Straitley tells one of the boys, “A man who doesn’t understand literature is generally ill-equipped to understand anything else either.“ Dire events in the tale go on to prove him right.

Loneliness, homophobia, troubled child-parent relationships, life at a residential school, the unwillingness of the older lot to change with the times, love, lust, paedophilia, murderous intent…Harris packs Difficult Class with these emotions and offers up a splendid if rather chilling read.




darkDifficult ClassEnglandgrammar schoolJoanne HarrisPsychological thrillerthriller

Sheila Kumar • February 20, 2018

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