Title: Gentlemen and Players
Author: Joanne Harris
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Date: 2006 (2005)
Genre: Mystery / Psychological Thriller
Summary: For generations, privileged young men have attended St. Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, groomed for success by the likes of Roy Straitley, the eccentric Classics teacher who has been a fixture there for more than thirty years. But this year the wind of unwelcome change is blowing, and Straitley is finally contemplating retirement. He is joined this term by five new faculty members, including one who holds intimate and dangerous knowledge of St. Oswald’s ways and secrets. Harbouring dark ties to the school’s past, this young teacher has arrived with one terrible goal: to destroy St. Oswald’s.
It took me longer to read Gentlemen and Players than it should have and I only finished it a couple of days ago so this review is full of unprocessed thoughts.
This was a fantastic book. I really, really enjoyed it.
Gentlemen and Players is a dark psychological thriller set in a grammar school, St Oswald’s, somewhere in the North of England. The blurb says it’s set in Yorkshire but I think that’s more based on the fact that Harris worked at Leeds Grammar School rather than anything within the story itself. I feel like it’s set in the North so that the class divisions are even more prominent but that may be just me reading into things too much.
The story is told by two alternating first-person narrators. One is Rob Straitley, a Classics teacher who has spent his entire working life at St Oswald’s, and the other is the perpetrator who is determined to destroy the school in one way or another. This second narrator is unnamed for most of the book and their identity is only revealed at the end so I’ll just refer to them as the perpetrator for the review. The second narrator’s point of view contains frequent flashbacks to their childhood and these moments reveal why they’re targeting the school but their story is teased out across the entire novel and nothing is quite revealed until the end of the book. Occasionally, it can get confusing because these narrative voices are so alike (which I assume is on purpose to demonstrate that the perpetrator has much in common with Rob Straitley) but you can follow who is narrating because they’re represented by chess pieces: a black pawn for the perpetrator and a white king for Straitley. This technique comes in handy in the last couple of chapters.
One thing I really loved about the book is the slow build of suspense. The plot starts with school-boy antics – things go missing, children are mean to each other, etc. – but as the plot progresses the incidents become very sinister. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it but the book is a psychological thriller so you can expect some very dark moments. We’re privy to the perpetrator’s point of view but because the narrator is so unreliable the reader is still left in the dark. This kept me on edge because I felt strangely secure when reading Straitley’s perspective but untethered during the perpetrator’s point of view. I thought the build-up was so well done that I didn’t even need the twists at the end. I was thoroughly enthralled by the plot.
I found the themes of the book rather compelling. As the title indicates, this is a book about social class and there’s a lot of resentment from the perpetrator concerning class systems. They seem disgusted by working-class people who go to state schools, even though they are one of those people, but they also seem to abhor the privilege that is so evident in places like St Oswald’s that thrive on old traditions and old money. It also looks at the teaching profession and power structures in schools which works really well. The book wouldn’t work without a serious exploration of these issues and they’re seamlessly tied into the overarching plot.
The ‘big reveal’ could be seen as a little bit formulaic but I think that the rest of the book is good enough to carry it. Honestly, I think it would have worked with something a little less dramatic because the plot itself is so good but that’s my opinion.
Would I recommend this book? Definitely! I loved this book and I’d highly recommend it to anyone. Just give it a go.
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