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Friday, February 4, 2011

Review: GENTLEMEN & PLAYERS by Joanne Harris

It’s been awhile since I had as much delicious fun as I’ve had reading Gentlemen and Players the last few days. Always fascinating, never overwritten, Harris’s novel speeds along through a tale of deception, intrigue, and above all, preserving what’s proper and good, even if that means shoving an awful lot of dirt under an expensive Turkish rug.

The setting is St. Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys in northern England, a private school throwback to the days when manicured cricket pitches and carefully groomed, uniformed boys were the backbone of British education. Though no longer a boarding school, St. Oswald’s preserves every other vestige of its stuffy, exclusionary history. But one student seems determined to bring the place to its knees.

It takes a bit of attention to follow the different points of view in the book. One storyline takes place in the not-too-distant past: Our hero, Snyde, longs to attend St. Oswald’s but is instead relegated to a horrid public school attended mostly by bullies from the council estate. Snyde’s one hope is that now that dear old Dad has become the porter at St. Oswald’s, it will be easy to sneak inside the walls and pretend to be a student. What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

Well ... plenty. But fast-forward twenty years, and now here’s grown-up Snyde, a St. Oswald’s teacher. Through innuendo, machinations, evil plots, and violence, Snyde is determined to ruin the once-beloved school.

The third viewpoint is that of Roy Straitley, the Latin master who’s near retirement age and loves St. Oswald’s despite his sardonic observations and clear disrespect for its administration. Only Straitley is suspicious of the scandals that suddenly are unearthed; and only he sees the connection to the events of years past, that “bad business” he alludes to as St. Oswald’s last great scandal.

It’s up to the reader to connect these threads, or wait for Joanne Harris to bring them all together. She knows her territory as a former private school teacher herself. Poignantly she shows us the yearning of the underprivileged to enter the scholar’s world, the rigid class system that holds young Snyde at arm’s length, and yet we understand as well the realm of Roy Straitley, who truly loves his students even if the lower class is virtually invisible to him.

Along with some great writing and characterization, we’re treated to a suspenseful yarn that serves up more than one unexpected knot. The only downside is that now I’m stuck wishing it weren’t over.

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