“There is no risk assessment for Life. And Life is what we are teaching.”
Joanne Harris once again mines the same rich seams of St Oswald’s School for Boys as she’s done in BLUE EYED BOY and GENTLEMAN & PLAYERS. This time it’s 2005 and the school governors have appointed a new crisis management team, who come bearing such dubious gifts as rebranding advice, paperless workplace policies and joint classes with sixth formers from the nearby Mulberry Girls School. Latin master Roy Straitley is up in arms, especially when the identity of the new superhead is revealed as Jonny Harrington, one of his least favourite ex pupils and who is now “double-dipped in a toxic brew of arrogance and sanctity.”
Straitley’s narrative is interspersed with one from the 1980s, when the school was rocked by a scandal involving his close friend, English teacher Richard Clarke. As each layer unfolds we learn about a web of disturbing secrets. Unifying past and present is the question of reputation – how far we might go to protect it, what it’s based on, whether it’s deserved and how much it shapes how we respond to people or events.
Harris’ trademark ability to mix unreliable voices and dark humour with a glorious grasp of human nature is evident throughout. So too is her alertness to hypocrisy and apparent admiration for values such as loyalty and friendship. And, as in previous St Oswald’s novels, she displays her ongoing fascination with class, pitting the grammar school boys against those from the Sunnybank Estate where “there’s a whole language of spitting…It’s got its own grammar, and everything.”
I especially enjoyed the tension between the old school and would be modernisers at St Oswald’s – and Harris’ sympathy for the way things have always been done, for the compassionate neglect that seems under attack. “In my experience, pastoral care and paperwork exist in inverse proportion to each other, like common sense and training” declares Straitley, who rebels against the use of email, health and safety, the fast tracking of his younger colleagues up the career ladder and all advice about smoking less, exercising more and laying off the saturated fat. DIFFERENT CLASS allows Straitley to celebrate a number of small victories – reminders that not all progress is necessarily better than the past it replaces. His days are numbered though and Harris clearly thinks that’s a tragedy, for all he’s gently mocked.
A seductive novel, adorned with blackmail, murder, licquorice all sorts, homophobia and chalk dust, DIFFERENT CLASS plays out cleverly like the game of chess to which Harris herself deliberately invites comparisons. As a whole though it feels less like a homage to life as a series of winning moves to gain the upper hand, and more as celebration of turning up and taking part.