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School for Scandal
In this thrilling story, a deadly game is played out at a plummy prep academy.
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, January 15, 2006; BW06
GENTLEMEN & PLAYERS
By Joanne Harris
Morrow. 422 pp. $24.95
I'm new to Washington, but my stint as a teacher at a wealthy prep school was good preparation for the capital's weird mix of idealism and cynicism, equality and privilege, principle and corruption. The tightly closed atmosphere of those hallowed halls, so richly scented with money and charged with all that adolescent sexuality -- like an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue come to life in the library -- creates a fertile culture for scandal. During a particularly bleak year in St. Louis, where I taught, the three most august academies weathered at least two ruinous affairs between teachers and students and one murder. Those tragedies don't appear in any of the lovely brochures, but gossip clings to these expensive schools as tenaciously as ivy.
Of course, you don't need to spend $20,000 a year to learn this. It's the bread and butter of novels about prep schools, which most of us taste for the first time in John Knowles's pompous tale of repressed homosexuality, A Separate Peace . If ever a novel deserved to be knocked off the curriculum, it's this one, and Joanne Harris may finally have shaken the branch hard enough to do it. Her irresistible Gentlemen & Players conjures up the ivory towers of an old private school with all the tradition, pride and moldy resentment such places cultivate generation after generation.
Constantly surprising and wickedly fun, this revenge tale is told by two narrators in alternating chapters that begin at the start of the school year at St. Oswald's Grammar School for Boys in England. The first narrator, a hypnotically nasty Iago, introduces himself by saying, "If there's one thing I've learned in the past fifteen years, it's this: that murder is really no big deal." A precocious, desperately lonely child, he grew up on the campus of St. Oswald's (his alcoholic father was the groundskeeper), and for years he nursed a bitter desire to cross the threshold and enter that "unattainable glory," like "Xanadu . . . Asgard and Babylon all in one," where "young gods lounged and cavorted." Alienated from his rough public-school mates, he gradually insinuated himself into St. Oswald's, at first just sneaking onto campus for athletic games but then (dressed in a stolen uniform) taking more daring forays into the buildings, the library, even the classrooms, sometimes handing in essays and joining school photos. "All I wanted, you see, was to belong ," he claims. But of course, that's impossible, and the inevitable failure of his dream has now brought him back to the school disguised as a new teacher, determined to destroy St. Oswald's through a curriculum of vandalism, sabotage and murder.
The second narrator, Roy Straitley, introduces himself as the "Old Centurion of the School." After 10 years as a student at St. Oswald's, he's spent 33 more teaching Latin, holed up in the Bell Tower like Quasimodo, beloved by clever students, remembered by nostalgic alumni and grudgingly tolerated by efficient, new administrators. Harris gets everything about prep-school culture just right, from the "genteel decrepitude" to the classic figures who serve on every faculty and the comic mingling of high ideals and petty power plays. But she's particularly brilliant with Straitley, who knows he's "like a rather dull first edition no one quite dares to throw away." Every good academy has one: the ironic iconoclast who is nevertheless the very spirit of the place, waging a lonely battle against computers, maintaining the school's traditions and opposing the headmaster's acquiescence to market pressures.
Straitley doesn't know it, but he's been cast as the white knight in an infiltrator's deadly game. It begins with a few harmless annoyances -- a lost grade book, a missing coffee mug -- but then the problems start to multiply and grow more ominous. At first, Straitley doesn't notice the pattern; he's too concerned with the headmaster's subtle efforts to retire him. But then poisonous arguments erupt between faculty and students; serious charges are leveled; vandals strike; a boy vanishes. Straitley struggles to parry these thrusts, but he doesn't even know who his opponent is -- and eventually, in a dazzling feat of narrative trickery, neither do we.
Beyond the book's considerable entertainment value, Harris has written an unsettling reminder of how much our orderly lives depend on a fragile level of trust. Little grains of dishonesty and malice sprinkled in the gears of an organization are almost impossible to detect but can bring down the whole structure. Ironically, the saboteur's most deadly tool is computer security, so trusted by everyone that, in the wrong hands, it shreds reputations without any opposition.
As the battle at St. Oswald's continues, shifting from annoyances to embarrassments to scandals to first-degree crimes, we hear more and more about the intruder's bitterly unhappy childhood and the roots of his fiendish hatred for this well-heeled culture. From the start of her career, Harris has explored class issues with a smart, witty touch (consider the conflicts in Chocolat and Coastliners ), but she's never come closer than she does here to the arrogance of privilege and the malignancy of envy.
Bouncing between one narrator's maniacal strategy and the Old Centurion's desperate defense, I was hooked from the first page; by the midpoint, I was racing along as though it were a timed exam, as desperate to catch the clues as I was to find out if St. Oswald's -- or at least Roy Straitley -- would survive. Even the talented Mr. Ripley would find himself outclassed by the twists and turns Harris serves up here. At the end, you'll gasp so loudly the librarian will throw you out. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.
Boys-school thriller holds an odd secret
Reviewed by Mario Bruzzone
Sunday, January 8, 2006
Gentlemen and Players
By Joanne Harris
WILLIAM MORROW; 422 Pages; $24.95
The George Bernard Shaw line is that England and the United States are two nations divided by a common language; reading Joanne Harris' "Gentlemen and Players" is an experience in the veracity of that statement.
To be fair, the feeling of cultural otherness subsides after the first hundred pages, as the milieu of St. Oswald's school for boys and the vocabulary become more familiar. Nonetheless, the feeling never disappears entirely, especially because "Gentlemen and Players" is an atypical thriller. Rather than suspense, dramatic irony drives the plot; and two participants, both a little unreliable, tell the story.
It's a lot for one novel to do, and Harris isn't quite able to force all the pieces into place. She is funny and charming in rendering Roy Straitley, the last remaining Latinist at St. Oswald's and a veteran of 33 years of teaching, but she falters with the villainous Snyde, and the sections that Snyde narrates vary from delightful to dreary.
Snyde teaches at St. Oswald's, like Straitley, but is plotting to destroy the school -- under an assumed name. Snyde's father was the porter at the school a decade and a half ago; Snyde attended the local public school, Abbey Road Juniors. That class difference -- Abbey Road is a school whose students come from "a depressing block of pebble-dashed council houses" -- is one source of Snyde's hatred. Another key to Snyde's persona lies in a story told early on, when Snyde sneaks onto the St. Oswald's grounds for the first time:
"Expectantly, I waited. The tightness in my throat gradually subsided. My heart slowed to a near-normal pace. I became aware of my surroundings, first with curiosity, then with increasing discomfort. There were thorns sticking through my T-shirt into my back. I could smell sweat, and soil, and the sour smell of the hedge. ... At first I grinned with pleasure -- I had trespassed, and escaped capture -- then I became aware of a feeling of dissatisfaction, a flutter of resentment beneath my ribs.
"Where were the cameras? The land mines? The guards? ... Most importantly, where was my father?"
It's a great scene, pregnant and poignant, and the type of epiphanic moment that ought to resonate, and reappear, throughout the novel. Instead, it illustrates the beginning of Snyde's metamorphosis into a murderer. A further myriad reasons are given for Snyde's psychosis: socioeconomic inequality, of course, as well as neglect, bullying and unrequited love. Nothing ever quite fits together, though; it's all too disparate and discrete.
Straitley, the other narrator, is an engaging, endearing character. He's the type of old classicist that fills his speech with laments like "O tempora! O mores!" and oblique references to Horatius Cocles. He smokes cigarettes in his classroom when no one is around, refuses to use e-mail and always wears the same brown tweed jacket with elbow patches. Because he has taught in the tower of St. Oswald's for so long, his students call him Quaz, as in Quasimodo, outside the classroom, which gives him a sort of perverse glee. Straitley's unflagging sense of humor, often morbid and dry, is a highlight of the novel. He describes a French teacher as "decorative but rather useless in a leggy, Gallic sort of way," and sees himself as "relegated to a dusty corner of the new Languages section, like a rather dull textbook no one quite dares to throw away." He even has a favorite bit of graffiti -- "hic magister podex est," which refers to him with a Latin vulgarism -- which never fails to make him smile.
Finally, there's the twist, which invites discussion. (Warning: Spoilers will follow.) Snyde, it turns out, is actually a woman. It's an impressive trick, at first, since Harris implicates a different character. Unfortunately, Julia Snyde doesn't square with the information provided earlier, both implicit and explicit.
Most notably, Snyde relates that her assumed name was "carefully selected from one of the smaller Honors Boards on the Middle Corridor" of St. Oswald's. Barring semantics, this should make Snyde a man (or, at the least, formerly a boy). Other telltales that Harris uses strongly imply Snyde's gender to be male, more than simple misdirection. They're not worth exploring further, but the twist seems wrong even before rereading indicates why.
More important, Snyde gains nothing by withholding her gender. Indeed, it would make her more sympathetic, her plight as a child more affective. In short, it would underscore the insider/outsider dynamic that exists so strongly in Harris' world. Instead, Straitley's sections undercut Snyde's, deflating her rage and frustration, and, in a sense, upholding the status quo. Snyde, unfortunately, is a type, a role, an unfulfilled possibility. There does not need to be an Aesop-like moral, or even a classic denouement. But there should be something that keeps Harris' novel fully alive, for half of it is empty.
Mario Bruzzone is a San Francisco writer.
Harris' wit conquers flaws
Frank L. Kaplan, Special to the News
January 20, 2006
Gentlemen and Players
By Joanne Harris. William Morrow, 422 pages, $24.95.
With the subtle hint of murder in the first sentence of Joanne Harris' latest novel, one may safely assume that even the most fastidious reader will be securely snagged.
In this intricately plotted and disquieting moral tale, the author explores the frangible line between the well-to-do and those unfortunates who are tagged as society's "slappers" and "proles."
The setting is St. Oswald's Grammar School for Boys, a posh institution where upper-crust Britishers send their male offspring to be educated, absorb the old Empire's traditions, lounge and cavort. On the surface, the administration manages to project a façade of "burnished spires" and well-being, when in reality the school is decaying because it is "perpetually on the brink of tragedy or farce."
While Harris creates a psychologically potent narrative that challenges readers by its complexity, it's her well-developed characters that truly shine and help propel the story line along its serpentine course. Among the memorable individuals at St. Oswald's school is the prominent classics master Roy Straitley, who projects an aura of antiquity. Even in his physical presence, he's seen as a throwback, a "hunched silhouette in a battered gown and slip-on leather shoes."
A more complex figure is young Chris Snyde, son of the school's caretaker. A self-described "solitary child," Chris becomes obsessed with the "No Trespassers" sign posted on the school's outskirts, "straddling the air like a sentinel."
The sign's warning proves intimidating, and he obeys its command, observing the school happenings from afar. Then curiosity strikes, and he begins to infiltrate the sacred grounds and old buildings, so different from the common school he attends where those submitting homework are viewed as being a swot or a queer.
Chris takes on the alias of "Julian Pinchbeck," and even though he ultimately succeeds in melding into St. Oswald's exclusive environment as a student, he quickly realizes that without recognition or any consequence, he's merely an intruder who doesn't belong.
"I didn't know it then, but that was the moment I declared war against St. Oswald's," he muses. "It wouldn't have me? Then I would have it. I would take it, and no one, nothing . . . would stop me. Another line had been drawn . . . Another line, daring me to cross. Like murder."
As Snyde begins his deranged quest under the assumed name, he becomes infatuated with a flamboyant upperclassman named Leon Mitchell. Their escapades together lead to drastic consequences, including John Snyde being fired and his son departing for an extended stay with his absent mother in France.
Undeterred even by time, Chris returns to the school 15 years later as a new master, under the assumed name of Keane, to destroy the school and those who run it. His only serious opponent, it turns out, is the classicist Straitley. The two play out a game much like a chess match, shifting pieces as personified by their unsuspecting peers and students.
Harris aficionados may be taken aback by Gentlemen and Players because of its convoluted plot and the improbable changes some characters assume. In addition, to better understand Gentlemen and Players, a grasp of the lexicon of the British school system proves helpful, as does an appreciation for Latin. It is a nostalgic, if irritating, habit of Straitley's to subject his peers to terse Latin phrases that leave them exasperated and wondering what he means.
In her previous novels, Coastlines, Five Quarters of an Orange, Blackberry Wine and Chocolat among them, Harris' locales are typically French, while her latest work is set in England.
One characteristic of her novels remains constant, however: her rhythmic and fluid prose in which she blends a whip-sharp wit with a beguiling sense for language that tempts readers to reread well-turned phrases and sentences, and leaves them smiling in the wake of poignant quips.
In describing St. Oswald's head of the German Department through Straitley's eyes, for example, Dr. Devine is seen as having "no interest in Classics, and . . . thinks that 'carpe diem' means 'fish of the day'."
For readers who fancy an intricate mystery and story line that also touches on anti-Semitism and vicious intra-faculty politics, with expertly sketched heroes, buffoons and rogues to match, Gentlemen and Players will tease the mind and touch one's soul.
Frank L. Kaplan is a retired CU professor who writes from Wheat Ridge.
Wednesday, January 18, 2006 - 12:00 AM
Author taps into personal background for latest book
By Melinda Bargreen
Seattle Times staff reporter
One thing you can count on with novelist Joanne Harris is that you can never quite typecast her. She works on several different projects at once, and when she finishes one, you never know if it's going to be a novel with some romance ("Chocolat"), a novel about disorder in an order of nuns on an island in France ("Holy Fools"), a book about cooking ("The French Table") or a set of short stories ("Jigs and Reels").
This time, it's something entirely different. The English-born Harris, who was last in Seattle two years ago, has returned with a new novel, "Gentlemen & Players" (William Morrow, 432 pp., $24.95), a suspenseful story set in an aristocratic boys' school, replete with hidden identities, deadly alliances and an underclass anti-hero who desperately wants to be one of the school's elite students.
"It was inevitable," said Harris in a recent phone conversation, "that having spent 15 years in teaching, I was going to write about being a teacher. I started 'Gentlemen and Players' in 2000, but it was a long time before I finished it. It's a complicated story and I had to get my head around it. I kept picking it up, putting it down.
"I felt very close to the school environment and the characters, and I wanted to get some distance between myself and teaching. For years, I was very much in that world. I wouldn't have felt comfortable bringing the book out earlier."
After the great success of "Chocolat," which became an Oscar-nominated movie, wasn't Harris pressured to do "Chocolat, Part Deux"?
No, she says: "I don't respond well to pressure."
This is a woman who knows her own mind and who revels in a certain amount of shock value, judging by her Web site (www.joanne-harris.co.uk).
There she declares of herself: "Her hobbies are listed in Who's Who as: 'mooching, lounging, strutting, strumming, priest-baiting and quiet subversion of the system,' although she also enjoys obfuscation, sleaze, rebellion, witchcraft, armed robbery, tea and biscuits. She is not above bribery and would not necessarily refuse an offer involving exotic travel, champagne or yellow diamonds from Graff. She plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16, is currently studying Old Norse and lives with her husband Kevin and her 12-year-old daughter Anouchka, about 15 miles from the place she was born."
Asked about the bass guitar and the band, Harris calls herself "an interested amateur" who began playing the flute and was an orchestral player for some time. When her boyfriend formed a band, they didn't need a flute player but they did need a bass guitar, so Harris learned to play.
"It's a garage band," she claims.
"Writing is solitary activity, so the band is a good outlet for Harris, who likes to "let go and jam and play with other people."
Harris' day job still keeps her pretty busy. Her latest book, which involves considerable mayhem, has generated what she calls "tons of e-mail" from former colleagues and pupils claiming they recognize themselves and others among Harris' characters.
It is a work of fiction, but it is steeped in the facts of Harris' experience and rings authentically true. Harris says she taught teenaged boys for such a long time that she is aware that they feel things "with a tremendous intensity not necessarily duplicated later in adulthood: a crush, a sense of unfairness, rage, frustration, elation."
"Education is such an intense little world. You never really quit being a teacher. I call myself a 'teacher in recovery.' "
And with that, Harris' very proper English diction is interrupted by a surprisingly robust laugh, though it's a response you might suspect of someone who claims to enjoy everything from sleaze to armed robbery. The accent may sound proper, but there's some extremely improper behavior in her books.
Published in 40 countries now, Harris is one of those few authors who genuinely enjoys book tours. They give her the chance to get feedback from the public. She also likes meeting booksellers, publishers and all the other people involved in the book business.
But in the meantime, there are always a couple of stories on the boil. Harris is apt to flit from one to the other, depending on her state of mind.
"Stories take time," she explains. "I can never tell my publisher what the next book is going to be and when it will be done. I'm never certain myself which project I will finish first. I'll work for half a year on a story and then drop it for 18 months, because the evolution of plot hasn't actually quite finished.
"So don't ask me what's coming out next: I don't know either!"
February 2, 2006
Books of The Times
In Playgrounds Tweedy or Seedy, It's All in the Game
By JANET MASLIN
GENTLEMEN & PLAYERS
By Joanne Harris
422 pages. William Murrow. $24.95.
LOVERS & PLAYERS
By Jackie Collins
498 pages. St. Martin?s Press. $24.95.
Joanne Harris's new novel, "Gentlemen & Players," takes place at an English boarding school and is loosely modeled on a game of chess. The place looks like a castle, and its oldest faculty member is a de facto king. It also includes characters named Knight and Bishop. Wayward students and rookie teachers constitute a full lineup of pawns.
These players ought to be very different from the ones who show up in Jackie Collins's latest round of crypto-celebrity gamesmanship. And they do differ, at least in terms of outward behavior. But Ms. Collins also manoeuvers her characters through a story as if she were playing by a strict set of rules.
Which of these books describes the characters' favorite coffee mugs? Which discusses booty? Naturally, certain distinctions are unmistakable. While Ms. Harris devotes herself to the politicking and infighting within a musty academic community, Ms. Collins has more expertise in show-business name-dropping and outrageous product placement. Torn from today's headlines — the headlines in glossy fan magazines, that is — her story is as seedy as Ms. Harris's is tweedy.
Each of these authors has a favorite kind of title. Ms. Harris usually plays to the taste buds ("Chocolat," "Five Quarters of the Orange," "Blackberry Wine"), while Ms. Collins suggests that a marketing research firm has been working overtime ("Deadly Embrace," "Lethal Seduction"). But the overlapping titles of their new books indicate that gamesmanship may be sexier than any of the above. Each of these books does a reasonably lively job of playing it that way.
The premise of "Gentlemen & Players" is simple: St. Oswald's Grammar School for Boys is a place that inspires fierce passions. For Roy Straitley, the elderly classics teacher who is the school's foremost authority figure, the main emotion is loyalty. For somebody else, it is vengefulness. The identity of that somebody else is carefully concealed by Ms. Harris in a book that alternates narrative voices between Straitley and his secret nemesis. Straitley has no idea that someone within his realm is thinking "the day I bring St. Oswald's down, I want Roy Straitley to be there."
The designation "Gentlemen & Players" is also a cricket reference, one that refers to class distinctions between patrician players and paid ones. That snobbery is important to the book's overall plot. The father of the secret schemer was St. Oswald's custodian, and thus a working-class outsider. The villain recalls watching St. Oswald's yearningly as a child, thinking that "within its grounds young gods lounged and cavorted."
Now these young gods are made the targets of dirty tricks that smack of chessboard strategy. Knight is sacrificed for the sake of a more important player. The villain boasts of "five staff members destroyed in one elegant strike." Best of all is a dazzling climactic twist that startlingly reinforces the novel's chess connections. Though this book is overlong and dilatory, straying from the chess tactics and devoting too much attention to the humdrum details of academic life, its last move is a winner.
Ms. Collins's version of game-playing begins with character names. Her initial ploy is none too delicately to telegraph status, personality and ethnicity through each choice of moniker. Thus, Red Diamond is a bad-tempered billionaire. And Liberty, the one-name would-be singer with a heart of gold, has aunts named Diahann and Aretha to establish that she is black. Ms. Collins would rather clobber the reader so hard she risks inflicting brain damage than let a point like this remain subtle.
Another rule about these characters: they must bear a clear but not quite legally actionable resemblance to famous people. Here again, subtlety plays no role: Ms. Collins relies on direct juxtaposition to drop these anvil-like hints. "Colin Farrell, Owen Wilson, Brad Pitt — Jett was better looking than any of those guys," she writes, about one of Red's sons. It rarely takes her half a page to link, say, Tom Cruise to Jonathan Goode, the book's "extremely famous worldwide movie star" and to malicious gossip ("Rumors about Jonathan's sexuality abounded") about the real guy.
Also rattling around "Lovers & Players" are a New York real estate mogul with a troublemaking Slavic ex-wife and a trashy, room-temperature-IQ teenage pop singer who is the target of a gold-digging louse. (Her name is Birdy, which begins with B and ends with y.) Then there is the hip-hop mogul with the scary wife and the "Latina diva supreme" named Lola Sanchez. Breaking dramatically from these hand-me-downs, the book also has a wholesome, virginal heroine who would be like Cinderella — if Cinderella were to get drunk and have a one-night-stand with her future brother-in-law.
Here we reach the outer limits of Ms. Collins's imagination. Once she has appropriated and shape-shifted her characters, once she has handed out their labels ("she was a real knockout in a Reese Witherspoon, Gwyneth Paltrow kind of way") and inventoried their possessions, she is at a loss. Another rule followed here: characters this derivative can't change. They can only be carried along by the author as she tries to keep them looking busy.
Somehow, this formula stays mostly ageless. And Ms. Collins's imitators (most recently, Tilly Bagshawe with "Adored") rarely have the gall to get it right. The one place where "Lovers & Players" seems badly dated is in the bedroom. When the heroine strides toward her lover "like a magnificent panther," when the embrace suddenly turns into "a frenzy of passionate kissing," when "later she could be falling into his bed, making wild, passionate, love," Ms. Collins's gamesmanship fails. These scenes are all work and no play.