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Harris, Joanne - 'Gentlemen and Players'
Paperback: 512 pages (Jun. 2006) Publisher: Black Swan ISBN: 0552770027

St Oswald's Grammar School, a private boys' day school located in Somewhereshire, England, shelters behind its wrought iron gates and exudes and air of solidity and academic excellence. Though not in the first rank of secondary educational institutions, in comparison with neighbouring Sunnybank Park Comprehensive, its spreading lawns and cricket pitches, its mock-Gothic turrets and uniformed pupils scurrying purposefully to class might appear an academic idyll.

To the insider, however, especially to Roy Straitley, the Classics master who is determined to complete his 'century' - his 100th term at St Oswald's - and who loves the school, if not what it threatens to become, the school is under attack.. Those who would modernise the place, especially the Head, are pushing him out of his bailiwick in the school tower that he shares with the mice, computers are making his life miserable, and he suspects that Latin is about to be replaced by Modern Language Studies.

For one child whose father was the Porter of the school and who thus grew up there but was never part of it, gradual decay is far too good for the place. It deserves to be thoroughly destroyed for its snobbery, elitism, and arrogant appropriation of power. And thus begins an elaborate game in which the former Porter's kid takes up a teaching post at St Oswald's in order to launch a series of ingenious moves directed at destroying its reputation.

It's a clever idea but the book as a whole is too clever by half. Narrated alternately by Straitley and the mole, it shifts not only point of view but time periods, sometimes a bit dizzyingly. A more serious problem is its fundamental failure to convince the reader that an eleven-year-old could so successfully infiltrate the school (under an assumed name, Julian Pinchbeck), or that this particular child would want to do so, no matter how unattractive Sunnybank Park may be. To explain why this is a dubious premise would involve revealing the final twist, one that the publishers begged early reviewers not to disclose.

By choosing to go for a 'socko' reveal, Harris forgoes the opportunity to explore some serious social and political questions by undercutting them in favour of shock. Once over the surprise, many readers may feel somewhat let down.

Yvonne Klein, Canada
March 2007

last updated 22/03/2007 19:18