Sunday, September 3, 2017

Book Review: 'Different Class' by Joanne Harris

"Different Class," by Joanne Harris, is a psychological thriller set in St. Oswald's Grammar School, where long-standing traditions may soon go by the boards. Johnny Harrington, a former and not very beloved pupil of Latin teacher Roy Straitley, is the new headmaster of St. Oswald's. In 2005, the governors of the school, as part of an "emergency management restructuring," hire Harrington to introduce new educational techniques, institute cost-cutting measures, and get rid of senior staff who have outlived their usefulness. There are two narrators. One is an unnamed fourteen-year-old boy who writes disturbing diary entries to a friend nicknamed "Mousey." The second is the aforementioned Roy Straitley, an individual in his mid-sixties who is obsessed with keeping St. Oswald exactly as it is.

Harris is known for her complicated and misleading plots and characters, literate prose, and brilliant use of puns, sarcasm, and black humor. The action begins in 1981, with a St. Oswald's student writing about his boring school subjects, talent for deceiving everyone by behaving inoffensively, and hidden murderous impulses. The words of this budding psychopath become increasingly chilling as the narrative progresses. The other narrator, Straitley, is a stickler for the tried and true pedagogical methods that have served him well for thirty-four years. He wittily reminisces about the past and worries that the new administration will force him to retire. An unmarried man with few friends, Straitley is a consummate professional who teaches Latin with gusto, and even sprinkles Latin phrases into casual conversation.

This compelling and clever book contains an intriguing mystery; scandals; verbal clashes marked by scathing put-downs and Latin curses; and hints of dark revelations to come. Straitley and his colleagues, including Harry Clarke--a goodhearted but imprudent teacher of English Literature who is far too chummy with the pupils--are lively and their students are equally colorful. Harris intriguingly explores themes that remain pertinent today. Among them are bullying, child abuse, religious fanaticism, sexism, the angst of adolescence, and injustice—"the tiny shard of something broken in the soul that can never be mended." "Different Class" has beautifully descriptive passages, but a series of dizzying and surreal twists and an excessively drawn out finale rob the ending of realism and coherence. Although these flaws prevent "Different Class" from being an unqualified success, it is still is an imaginative, provocative, and compelling novel that keeps us guessing until the last page is turned.

Editor's note: This review was written by Eleanor Bukowsky and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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