Imagine if a novel were like a gripping and skillfully-set game of chess. The characters in Joanne Harris’ novel “Different Class” are locked in a psychological battle against each other in a story that plays out over 25 years. The setting is St Oswald’s, a boys church school steeped in tradition whose reputation has fallen under public scrutiny following a series of scandalous events involving molestation and murder. Chapters alternate between the year 1981 when a troubled boy kept a journal about his time at the school and 2005 when an aging form-master Roy “Quaz” Straitley recounts the substantial changes at the school following the appointment of a new Head. This is a dramatic tale of conflicting ideologies, lifelong secrets and the social evolution of an institution built upon conservative values.
What’s so engaging about Harris’ main characters are how unlikeable they are on the surface, but I gradually grew to feel very sympathetic towards both of them. Mr Straitley is a Latin teacher with a penchant for liquorice allsorts who wants to uphold St Oswald’s traditions at all costs. He bemoans how socially enlightened thought is filtering its way into the school. It’s remarked how what is now identified as Attention Deficit Disorder “used to be called Not Bloody Paying Attention”. Yet, for all his griping and stuffy old ways, he has a genuine affection for “his boys”, cares about their education and wants to support them throughout their lives. He can also have a surprisingly enlightened attitude towards differences in sexuality having maintained a long-term friendship with a colleague who is an English Master and came out to him early on.
Reading the school boy’s journals the reader feels very wary of this adolescent who frequently refers to his hidden “Condition” and how his reason has been warped by his ultra-religious upbringing. Frequently he’ll justify his proclivity towards dealing out sadistic punishment by believing the righteous mindset of his church: “if God made me, which my dad and everyone else at church seem to think – then I guess it’s God’s fault I’m this way.” He addresses his entries to someone he calls “Mousey”. We only later find out the significance of this person and the things that happened in some disused clay pits frequented by delinquent school boys. He ominously states that “when people get in my way, bad things sometimes happen.” Yet, as twisted as the boy’s mindset is, I grew to feel a tenderness towards him as he wasn’t able to develop emotional stability in his poisonous home environment and how he became a pawn for a religious institution that wanted to impose its values upon the workings of the school. He finds a mentor in the figure of affable teacher Mr Clarke, but his attachment to him sours when he feels betrayed realizing he’s not the only boy worthy of this teacher’s attention.
What’s really driving these individuals and many of the other compelling characters in this novel is a desire to be part of a group and institution that will make them feel valued. The author has a meaningful way of writing about how St Oswald’s has the power to enhance the characters’ self esteem, but also make them feel isolated and alone. It’s stated how “Our sense of belonging is nothing more than bright reflections on water; on a sunny day, we can see the sky; the clouds; each other. But dark water lies in waiting for the unwary; for us all. Dark water doesn’t discriminate.” The school which Straitley has put all his faith in is transforming in a way he can’t control and suddenly he feels alienated from it. On the opposing side, the school boy never felt the acceptance he desired so seeks to enact his revenge against the place and people who failed to embrace him. When institutions like St Oswald’s don’t recognize how individual differences can make a community stronger, people are left feeling dangerously isolated.
The tightly plotted drama of “Different Class” plays out in a way which is exciting and surprising, but the novel also says something meaningful about our shifting sense of values. I read this novel at a much faster pace than I read most books for the sheer pleasure of the idiosyncratic characters and the desire to know how their intriguing story would play out. It’s a highly enjoyable read.