The heading on Joanne Harris’ website remarks that she “does a bit of writing.” Many readers will recognize the understatement: Harris is the author of more than a dozen notable works, including the popular, award-winning novel Chocolat, which first brought Harris to the attention of American readers.
In Different Class, Harris has created an absorbing novel with a deep, dark mystery at its heart. Though the story is a standalone, Different Class returns to geographical territory Harris explored in Gentlemen Players (2005) and Blueeyedboy (2010)—that of St. Oswald’s, a not-quite-first-class boys’ grammar school located in Yorkshire. Harris taught modern languages at a boys’ grammar school in England for 15 years, so she has nailed the musty, chalk-filled, stuck-in-time atmosphere dead-on.
Different Class doesn’t read like a traditional, blood-and-guts thriller, but its slow-burning fuse has a deeper impact that readers absorb through two different, remarkable narratives: that of Latin teacher Roy Straitley, who’s been at St. Oswald’s for decades; and that of a more sinister-sounding and anonymous diary writer who tells a chilling story about his time as a student at the school.
Readers are introduced, at first in a low-key way, to a milieu that encompasses pedophilia, homophobia and the sorts of subtle cruelties that may seem to sprout naturally in the setting of a boys’ school of this kind, where close contact provides fertile ground for adolescent discontent, dependency and an inbred atmosphere of bullying.
The book straddles a period of about 25 years in the life of the school. The unknown diarist writes during the 1980s, when St. Oswald’s experienced the imprisonment of a gay teacher for a crime that involved pedophilia and murder, with tragic implications that filter through to the present, as revisited by the now-elderly Straitley, who was a best friend to the accused. Straitley is also pretty much alone among the current teaching staff in his revulsion for the school’s new headmaster, Johnny Harrington, who was present during the 1981 event.
The author skillfully misdirects readers, who must sift for the truth through the lens of her narrators’ conflicting perspectives. Straitley remains intent on bringing the real wrongdoers to justice, although at book’s end, as in all good stories, the feeling remains that there’s still much to be accounted for.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Behind the Book essay by Joanne Harris on Different Class.