Different Class – Joanne Harris

We’re invited inside the walls of St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, West Yorkshire, at the beginning of the autumn term, 2005. Our guide is Roy Straitley, Head of Classics. Almost 66 and with 102 terms at the school completed, Straitley’s practically part of the furniture. He intended to retire at the end of the previous academic year but fears his subject will disappear from the curriculum as soon as he’s gone.

Besides, what would I do without the perpetual soap opera of St Oswald’s to sustain me? And my boys – my Brodie Boys – who else but I could look after them?

different-class-high-resThe term begins with significant change: a crisis head has been brought in with his own team. …all three smart and so well pressed you could have cut yourself on the creases. This disruption is bad enough but then Straitley realises that he knows the new head because twenty years ago he was in his tutor group.

Johnny Harrington, ye gods. My nemesis; my bête noire; the boy who almost cost me my job and cost the School a whole lot more. And now he’s a Headmaster, forsooth…

Like all new heads, Harrington’s set on further changes: a paper-free office environment, staff workstations in the staff Quiet Room, and – much to Straitley’s horror – consolidated Sixth Form classes with Mulberry House, a girls’ school. Whilst the rest of the staff give the new head a standing ovation, Straitley feels as though he’s listened to the sort of speech that’s …shot through with that self-deprecating charm that only the most dangerous of politicians can manage.

Between the present day chapters are diary entries from 1981 written by someone in Straitley’s form and addressed to Mousey. In the first entry, the boy reveals that he’s a ‘Seventh Term Boy’ having moved from Netherton Green due to his ‘condition’. A condition which means the ‘Rigorous Moral Code’ by which St Oswald’s church school is run is just what this boy needs.

Breaking rules is only fun of you get away with it. That means not telling anyone, even your best friend – assuming I had one, which I don’t. Not any more, anyway. Perhaps that’s why I’m telling you all my secrets, Mousey. Imaginary friends – like dead ones – don’t talk. They never give the game away. Still, it might be nice to find someone who shares my interests. Someone who likes to break the rules. Someone to share in the fun stuff. The fun stuff, like at Netherton Green.

The fun stuff. Like murder.

The two stories that unfold are linked by characters and by theme. As Straitley repeatedly butts heads with Harrington in 2005, the boy in 1981 begins sacrificing animals in an attempt to help a friend overcome his own difficulties. But then that friend goes missing.

As an ex-teacher, it’s very rare for me to read or watch anything set in a UK school. This is largely because writers so often get it wrong and I become irate at the ridiculous things they have their teacher characters do. I made an exception in this case though as Harris is also a former teacher and I was right to: she absolutely nails it. Straitley and Harrington, in particular, are perfect examples of two types of staff members: the old guard who hate technology, will continue to teach just how they like thank you very much and are married to the job versus the shiny new boy who’s been fast-tracked to the top, has done very little or no teaching and thinks that schools should be run like businesses. Harris makes both characters complex in order to avoid the reader straightforwardly sympathising with one and despising the other and I wonder whether readers’ reactions to them will vary depending on their opinion of the education system.

The key theme in the novel is homosexuality. In both the 1981 and the 2005 sections there are pupils dealing with other people’s reactions to their sexuality. This is obviously complicated by St Oswald’s being a church school and the horrendous opinions, teachings and supposed ‘cures’ that the Christian church advocated. What’s particularly interesting in the 2005 sections is that this is set two years after the repeal of Section 28 in England and Wales (It was repealed in 2000 in Scotland). Introduced in 1988, Section 28 stated that a local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality or promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship. By setting Different Class in an independent church school, Harris shows that while laws change, people’s attitudes don’t.

With echoes of The Wasp Factory and Lord of the Flies, Different Class explores the effects of masculinity and religion on teenage boys. It also looks at relationships between pupils and their teachers, questioning what form these relationships should take. Harris ponders whether things changed between 1981 and 2005 but doesn’t allow for simple conclusions. Different Class is a gripping, thoughtful novel. Highly recommended.

 

Thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.