Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Post 34: Different Class by Joanne Harris...a novel in a class of its own!

This post finds me at a moment of calm in the teaching calendar.  I have waved goodbye to year 13; always a mix of sadness and excitement as they move from the shelter of school stability and stand on the cusp of independence.  I now leave it up to them and the examiners of AQA as to their fates! In the meantime, year 12 remain on study leave and I am pausing before they return to embark on their year 13 courses in a couple of weeks.  In that pause, I have completed Joanne Harris's new novel, Different Class. Set in St Oswald's School, it was an apt choice for this time of year.

It also happens to be a novel of excellence.  The characters are well conceived and the plot receives my absolute admiration.  In a lifetime of writing, I would never be able to hold as many strands in my head as Joanne Harris succeeds in weaving. So good was the run-up to the climax that I stopped reading!  I didn't want to gulp it down whole, but I needed to savour the resolution.  Thus, armed with my own resolve to walk regularly no matter what the weather, I left my venerable signed hard-back copy on the arm of the chair and strode out in the pouring rain. And it was wet...

And it was worth the wait.  Pencil in hand, I read slowly, absorbing the novel's conclusion. If I've tempted you already, you can skip the detail and buy a copy! Or better still, pop a copy in an electronic basket and then come back to me as I fill you in on a little more detail.  That should have you eagerly anticipating that rather delightful thud as your new book lands on the mat.

 As Straitley, an erstwhile narrator of Gentleman and Players takes central stage in Different Class, he reflects on being a "tweed jacket" who is increasingly resistant to the changes engineered in St Oswald's school by the "suits". Whilst not yet approaching retirement, despite the messages sent out by my (premature) silver hair, I had great sympathy with Roy Straitley.  Where he sees professional common sense, someone else sees a necessity for a policy.  Where he sees a student, someone else sees a statistic that is ripe for improvement. It is a sad fact that education is so target driven.  It is a sad fact that so many of our students feel that success is only measured in A grades.  It stifles expression and creates huge fear of any form of failure.  Resilience is needed, but through creativity and discovery as opposed to the more bullish growth-mindset thinking that can create its own sense of failure.

But I have digressed!  I'm sure Mr Straitley and I would have a lot to discuss over one of those ring- stained coffee mugs in an ubiquitous staff room, but he has a much more exciting story to tell.

I confessed in my last entry that Joanne Harris had managed to hoodwink me with Gentlemen and Players.  In Different Class, I was completely absorbed and totally wrong-footed.  As with the former novel, this one has multiple narrators.  The first is Mr Straitley and the second is an anonymous diary writer who addresses his missives "Dear Mousey."  By the eighth and final part of the novel, I had given in and was forced to re-read some of the opening chapters.  My revered signed copy of the novel now has some graphite scribblings in the back so that I could unpack just who was who and who was doing what to whom and why!  Fortunately, Roy Straitley remained as clueless as I was until the end, a technique which works really well.  I never felt cheated by the writer, but I was certainly challenged as the plot twisted and unfolded more strands than an origami molecule. And yes, I've made a link to the origami, in case you need some distraction!

Let me try and give you a plot outline.  Straitley is resigned to the interference of a new super head and his crisis team, sent in to sort out St Oswald's following the poor peformance of the school.  The new Headmaster is Johnny Harrington, a past pupil of Straitley's, for whom Roy holds no affectionate memories.  The chronology of the book switches between the present (2005) to Harrington's time in school (1981). This cleverly intertwines multiple story lines.  From the rescue of the out-moded honours board in which Straitley is comically involved, to the exposition of the unlikely friendship between Harrington, David Spikeley and Charlie Nutter as they form a bond forged by the fact that they are new boys in an established class, the plot contains comedy, pathos, tragedy and unpredictability.

Harry Clarke is another significant figure in this novel, pulling together all the other characters and plot strands.  A teacher in 1981, he enjoyed a friendly relationship with Straitley and was popular with the boys.  His teaching methods were unorthodox, and his encouragement to get the students to call him Harry and to join him during break times to listen to music made him an anomaly when juxtaposed with the more traditional Devine, Straitley and Scoones.  It also rings alarm bells in the modern reader where stories of historic child and sexual exploitation abound in the news.  And so the accusations begin.  Naturally amenable, Clarke is the students' choice for confidential disclosure.  His own sexuality however makes him vulnerable and his position becomes untenable.  He never has his own narrative voice, and so we learn of his story bit by bit, with the truth not fully exposed until the closing chapters.

Likewise, we learn of the alliances between Harrington, Spikeley and Nutter as the novel progresses. With no spoilers at all, I will urge readers to pay attention to all nicknames in this book.  Exactly who are Goldie, Poodle, Ziggy, Piggy and Mousey? I'll leave that there, and leave you to enjoy the book in its rich fullness.

Set against the main background of St Oswald's, to which all the characters have a connection, there are also other settings that impact the story.  The church attended by Harrington's parents is intolerant and propagates prejudice with a hell-fire condemnation for anyone who thinks differently.  This is a subtle but significant strand, which influences the three boys and continues to resound in the lives of the modern pupils in Straitley's form of 2005. The clay pits are the other significant setting, drawing boys in to rebel from conformity.  The fact that they are out-of-bounds makes them menacing but intriguing. The dumped rubbish, magazines, burnt out cars and shopping trolleys form the detritus of modern life, but equally they provide a playground for boys seeking to break free of adult supervision. Attracting lads from Sunnybank (the local comprehensive) as well as the privileged St Oswald's, the lure of the pits crosses the class divide.

Other elements also cross this invisible line, creating relationships and alliances that help to make the story more complex and more satisfying.

Despite my need to resort to sifting backwards and paying more attention to facts and ideas that I had initially dismissed, or perhaps even because I needed my pencil notes at the end, I must endorse this novel.  It is, as Val McDermid is quoted as saying on the dust jacket, "A masterpiece of misdirection."

Though rightly popular, Joanne Harris needs more critical acclaim.  She is worthy of reading, but she is also worthy of studying.  I know that even as I shut the novel this afternoon and reflected on what I had just read, the book will benefit from a re-read.  Next time, I'll dive in with my eyes open, but I think she will still surprise me.

And if any of A level students happen to be reading this blog, (well done, I'm proud of you!), then this is certainly a good place to start a quest into good quality contemporary fiction. Joanne Harris is not a predictable novelist.  Each book stands alone, and you are never quite sure what she will publish next.  All part of the joyful anticipation of being a reader...

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Post 33: Karen Meets One of Her Heroes and Reviews Gentlemen and Players

Time to re-visit my sneaky day of self-indulgence at the Oxford Literary Festival in the Easter
Holidays! As I browsed the diary of events to find the best day for me to attend I noticed that Joanne Harris was speaking in the evening session on the final Friday.  My mind was made up. I have enjoyed her novels for a long time and I wanted to meet the person beyond the moody black and white photographs that adorn dust jackets.

Like most readers, I began with Chocolat, but I hasten to add that it was before its famous screen reincarnation with Juliette Binoche and Jonny Depp. I moved swiftly through Blackberry Wine, read on a spring holiday in Somerset, where I was heard to exclaim, "The narrator is a bottle of wine!" From this I enjoyed Five Quarters of an Orange, and I was hooked.  I was impressed by the writing style, command of narrative and the credible and sympathetic characterisation.  But I hit a stumbling block with Coastliners, Holy Fools and Sleep Pale Sister. The first seemed more pedestrian than the others I had read, whilst the latter two were a bit ethereal.  The magical realism in Chocolat had been subtle, but the spirit connections in these three were more centre stage than I would like.  I had quite a break from fandom for a while but was enticed back by Gentlemen and Players.  This was different again, and that is certainly a talent of Joanne Harris: she is not a stock author.  Her stories are original and different from one another with no hint of formulaic tendencies that can make successful authors somewhat predictable.

And so to hear the prolific writer speak.  To be honest, I was expecting someone an little enigmatic, perhaps because of the whimsical and spiritual that weaves its way through several of her titles. It was delightful therefore, to meet someone down-to-earth and funny.  She was there to talk about her latest novel, A Different Class. It is set back in St Oswald's School, the setting of Gentleman and Players and takes place a year after the events that form the twists and turns of that novel. Having promised myself that I wouldn't buy hardback novels just because I was swept up in Literary Festival enthusiasm, I promptly purchased the hardback (as then not yet available in the shops)!  The lure of a signature from Joanne Harris was too much to resist.  And so, having purchased the new novel, I needed to re-read the first in the set.  A third title, Blue Eyed Boy also follows the same setting, but although published prior, it is chronologically the third in the sequence.

And so to the nitty gritty of a review of Gentlemen and Players.  I hesitate to call it a thriller, but it isn't "just" a school novel either...more of a Malory Towers with malevolence! Indeed the dark side of the novel is foregrounded without subtlety in the opening sentence, "If there is one thing I have learned in the past fifteen years, it's this; that murder is really no big deal." Despite the somewhat obvious flagging of danger, the narrative is fun, and it plays with the reader.  Told in two voices, both in the first person, it is easy to identify the warm and sincere tones of Mr Straitley, a Master at the school for "ninety-nine terms strung across the years like paper lanterns."  In the first page of his story he announces, "One more term and I'll have scored my century.  one for the Honours Board at last. I can see it now; in Gothic script: Roy Hubert Straitley (BA), Old Centurion of the School." And he is a bastion of tradition.  Slightly stereotyped in tweed jackets with a penchant for his graduate gown beyond the classroom doors, his portrayal is fond.  He knows he is a stereotype of the old school and recognises the demise of his breed as the "suits" sweep in and take over the school.  Harris taught for several years before becoming a full time writer, (and yes, I would quite like to be her!) and her experience is evident as she recreates the ambience of a classroom, the small time politics of staff room gossip and the tensions between new ideas and embedded tradition. But Straitley is liked by the boys and is unwaveringly loyal.  He is sentimental about his old boys and never forgets any that he has tutored.

On the other hand, the second narrator is far more elusive.  There is no introduction beyond a contextual one, "I was nine years old at the time of our first encounter."  This is a reference to St Oswalds, and despite the fact that we are not formally introduced, we are quickly drawn in to the world of a young child brought to the Old Gatehouse when John Snyde was given the job of Porter at the school.  The older pupils going about their sports and their studies and the lure of of knowing that the school buildings were out of bounds creates insatiable curiosity."Nevertheless, for the first few months I obeyed without question...I kept to myself;stayed out of the house; played in the snowy woods behind St Oswald's and explored every inch of the school's perimeter - making sure never to cross the forbidden line."
The desire to see was however overpowering and the reader has empathy for the lonely child with a drunken father who seeks to look into a world denied by their own pitiful education. Thus the story unfolds with adventures into the forbidden, friendships forged and pretences established and then maintained. Julian Pinchbeck is created, an alter ego that acquires uniform from lost property and joins the school from time to time, appearing in class photos, attending odd lessons and indulging in the privileges offered by St Oswald's.  This all appears harmless, and yet the narration always carries tension, an undertone of seemingly unwarranted malice.

And so it is that the worlds of Pinchbeck and Straitley collide with far reaching effect.  The plot is complex, spanning nearly two decades and keeping the reader guessing as to who the second narrator really is. Revelation doesn't fully occur until the very closing pages.
This is a very satisfying read.  Even having read it before, and remembering some of the key twists and turns, this novel still maintains its tension.

I was not disappointed by Joanne Harris.  She was genuine and enthusiastic about her novels, and she told very funny anecdotes about her life in school.  I loved the tale of her physics colleague appearing fairly undisguised in Chocolat,  and her needing to confess her pilfering of his character before he recognised his depiction on film! I was brave enough to ask a question in the Q and A session following the talk and then I queued for that inevitable purchase! I left inspired, a little awed by her success and perhaps a little in love with the life that she has!

But back down to planet Karen and the need to read four non-fiction titles in preparation for the new A-Level syllabus.....but, I don't need to teach any until the beginning of June, so I think there must be time to squeeze in  A Different Class first!

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Post 32: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The news this week is that I have bought a wheelbarrow! I now feel that I have made it in the gardening world.  It even prompted a major sort-out of the garage, so that I have somewhere to park it! But even the new barrow cannot eclipse the bigger news that I may have found a new favourite novel!  All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was a birthday present from number two child.  He is definitely in my good books, if you'll excuse the pun!

All The Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.  It is a deeply satisfying story and is based around the simultaneous experiences of the two protagonists, Werner Pfenning and Marie-Laure LeBlanc.  The novel opens with a very short contextual chapter entitled Leaflets and then a second, Bombers. This sets the scene of a story with the Second World War at its heart. But this book is less about battles and far more abut personal experience.  Marie-Laure and Werner are children growing up with the preludes to war all around them.  It is the stuff of grownups, and not relevant to their lives. This naivety is juxtaposed with the seige in St Malo which we know involves both characters. This brings a palpable tension that keeps you reading long after you should have put out the light.

National Museum of Natural History, Paris
(Parisdigest.com)
Marie-Laure lives in a Paris apartment with her father.  He is the Principle Locksmith at the National
Museum of Natural History.  He is a quiet and mild-mannered man who understands his daughter absolutely.  He dedicates his life to making her life bearable, creating a gift of independence for her in the carefully carved replica 3D model of the roads and avenues around where they live.  For Marie-Laure is blind. He teaches her to trace her fingers over every house, every storm drain, every tree and every garden wall. He then takes her out in the real city, disorientates her and tells her to bring them home, thinking of the model, letting her knowledge of its geography guide her. Eventually, she is able to do it, and this is his first gift to her.  He then teaches her braille and gives her the gift of reading.  A birthday present of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea inspires her imagination. Together with knowledge gained from the Museum, she learns to love creatures of the sea and the essence of exploration and preservation.

In a parallel life Werner lives in a children's home with his sister Jutta.  He is determined not to work in the mines that claimed the life of his father, and it seems as though he will be rescued from this inevitability when his eager mind and quick intelligence imbue him with a love of radio.  Finding components discarded whilst out with his sister, he brings them back to the home and sets about rebuilding them.  He has no formal learning, but a ready mind and talented application.  The children's home soon has a working radio.  He and Jutta love to listen in to any number of stations, but are particularly entranced by some specific science and maths lectures, "[They] find the Frenchman's broadcasts again and again.  always around bedtime always through an increasingly familiar script." These become significant in their lives and in their education, as they attempt to replicate experiments.

The story is told in the present tense which gives it immediacy. Its chapters are delightfully short and switch mainly between Marie-Laure and Werner, with some other characters having brief voices where necessary.  We witness the unfolding of the Second World War and its impact on the lives of the protagonists. Doerr has written evocatively and sensitively, so that empathy for both characters is felt.


Fundamental to the story are Marie-Laure's blindness and Werner's love of radio.  The reader acknowledges from the opening pages that these two lives need to collide in some way, and yet it is not easy to see how.  Werner is spotted by the increasingly sinister presence of Nazi officers and is sent to school in Schulpforta, a National Political Institute for Education. These schools accepted only the brightest and the racially pure, and were set up to create leaders for the Third Reich. Werner was only a lad when he went, and we see his battle with conformity and freedom, a battle not fully realised or won until much later in the novel.

Marie-Laure is a beautifully constructed character.  She is fully convincing in her tenacity, her vulnerability and in her love for those around her.  It is difficult not to feel strongly protective of her as you read. Her life is upended when, in June 1940, she and her father are forced to leave Paris.  Her father has a mission from the museum, to protect one of its most precious exhibits.  This plot line is significant throughout the novel, and told a story of war that I had not before appreciated. They head for St Malo where a distant relative offers them a home for the duration of the war.

As those who know me will testify, I always yearn for happy endings.  I want my novels to have a full resolution and I want it to be good for those characters I have come to love, whose lives I have inhabited for the hours that I read.  This is a perfectly resolved story.  Whether happy or not I will not say, but its final chapters form a mini epilogue and trace the impact of Werner and Marie-Laure's story to 2014.

This novel moved me.  I have never quite come across a character like Marie-Laure. I will carry her in my head for many days, and in my heart for longer. It goes without saying that I think all of you should add this title to your must-read list.  Beautiful, devastating, evocative.  It is love for humanity with all its flaws that resounds through the pages as Doerr constructs this deeply personal story.

Excellent purchase.  Major points to child two for opening my eyes to this one!