This complex novel is in a class of its own
Joanne Harris is probably best known for her Chocolat trilogy – the first novel of which was made into a film starring Johnny Depp.
She has also written three cookbooks, Norse fantasies and historical fiction. To slot her into any single category is difficult – certainly her latest novel proves this.
Different Class is the third of a series of novels set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Malbry.
It follows on from the much-acclaimed Gentlemen and Players, which I have not read. While it is part of a trilogy (the first being blueeyedboy), each book can stand on its own. Different Class is loosely a crime novel, but according to Harris, “my Malbry books are among the darkest stories I’ve written. Although I think of them as comedies, they’re very, very dark comedies, with a broad seam of tragedy running through”.
This is certainly true of Different Class. While the book is filled with violence, abuse and murder, there are no detectives solving mysteries and neatly wrapping things up in the end. No criminals are caught.
Harris’s novel is more about shedding light on things that happened in the past and realising how the past never leaves a person.
Set in the troubled St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, we begin at the start of a new school year while the institution is still reeling from the tragedy of the past year.
A schoolboy has been murdered, exam results have been abysmal and several teachers, including the head, have left.
Eccentric Latin master Roy Straitley’s career at the school has spanned 30-odd years. But he’s not quite prepared for all the changes the new year brings.
A new head, Johnny Harrington, has been appointed and he brings with him all the latest trends – computers and a merger with Mulberry House, the school’s female counterpart.
But Harrington is also one of Straitley’s former pupils – a boy involved in a scandal so awful, it ended badly for one of St Oswald’s teachers, Harry Clarke.
Straitley did not like Harrington then and now, 20 years later, that feeling hasn’t changed.
As tensions grow at the school and uncomfortable truths begin to emerge, Straitley finds himself looking back on past events, reawakening feelings of guilt and betrayal.
While Straitley is a central character in this novel, he is by no means the hero. He comes from a generation of teachers that has largely disappeared. He’s a Latin master who is resistant to the onslaught of technology and being politically correct. But he does have his own moral code and sense of compassion.
Straitley is not perfect – he has an almost dysfunctional relationship with his parents, he’s rather uneasy with women, and he has many blind spots when it comes to his friends and his “Brodie Boys” (his favourite pupils). That being said, he is also kind, loyal and will admit to being wrong.
While he comes across as the perfect antithesis to the second protagonist in the novel, by the end of the book, the reader is left reconsidering this to some extent.
Different Class is written in two voices – Straitley’s and the second protagonist, Ziggy’s.
Ziggy is one of three boys linked to the scandal that ended with Straitley’s friend, Harry Clarke, being sent to jail.
We get to know Ziggy through his diary entries – a series of letters addressed to the mysterious “friend”, Mousey. We learn of his difficulties being the new boy at the school and his infatuation with his English teacher, Clarke.
We soon realise Ziggy is not a typical pupil – he’s manipulative and naïve; he’s abused and is abusive. According to Harris: “As a victim, he deserves sympathy, but as a human being, he’s deeply problematic. To me that was the hardest part of writing Different Class; the blurring of the boundaries between victim and abuser.”
Different Class is a masterful and honest portrayal of various characters. There are no real heroes or victims or abusers.
As you read it, beware the trap of making assumptions – life is not that simple.
Different Class by Joanne Harris is published by Doubleday[contact-form-7 404 "Not Found"]