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[76] Gentlemen and Players – Joanne Harris

gentlemen.gif“But our game is done. The king is alone. All our other pieces have left the board, and we can face each other honestly, for the first and last time.”

Gentlemen and Players sets in St. Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, where for generations privileged young men have been groomed for success under its academic excellence and prestige. But the school’s gilded glory does not come without a price–for the machinery that lies at heart is heartless and unforgiving. Over the years any scandal or gossip had been no more than a fleeting glimpse, until a begrudged master who shared a bitter history returns, forges seamless references to become first-rate candidate for a teaching post, gathers details of every harmless way with an observant eye, and contrives to bring the school down with one final heavy blow.

Beneath the air of assurance lays a master strategy that has been meticulously planned, like tactic for each well-thought move in a chess game. The only person who stands in the way of St. Oswald’s crumbling is Roy Straitley, the eccentric classics teacher who contemplates retirement after 33 years. What appears to be petty annoyances, boyish pranks and thefts quickly escalates in both occurrence and consequence. While school officials, in their usual bureaucratic bluntness and pride, overlook these tell-tale signs of disturbance, Straitley perspicaciously perceives that the crimes (not mere pranks) go further than simple mischief. He smells insurrection but fails to come to grasp of the full picture.

The narrative, which alternates between Straitley and the perpetrator, is prickly suspenseful as the absurd parade of mishaps and scuffles quickly metathesize into news-making scandals in which parents accuse the school of some concerted campaign of victimization. Which a mix of vicious politicking and rich dynamics, Gentlemen and Players makes my heart throb with its taut suspense of a thriller, the small tantalizing clues, and the slow manifestation of wreaking a havoc. I realize as a reader, an outsider, am not in an advantage to be savvy of the perpetrator’s identity as Roy Straitley himself. He might feel the deja vu and the sensation of something gone amiss. But all the unpleasantness since the beginning of the term–anti-Jew charge, alleged victimization campaign, dismissal of porter, tampering of food in a severe allergy case, newspaper campaign fed by an ubiquitous source–were somehow, obscurely, related.

As staff members are weeded out like pieces that have left the chessboard, anarchy descends on St. Oswald’s like a plague. The closer we think we have the perpetrator down the surprised we become, because readers find they are outwitted by the author. After all the plausible indication and evidence, one has to revert all speculations, back-track, make sense of what the truth might be.  This novel is built up in series of twists and turns that keeps reversing my assumptions and expectations, to an extent in which I don’t know who really the characters are.

The novel is about the obsession (desperate desire) of some underclass antihero who wants to be in the rank of the socially slite and privileged has gone awry. That he longing for respect and admiration can take a violent and menacing turn is both gripping and provocative.

7 Responses

  1. This isn’t one I’d normally associate with Joanne Harris’s name (I think food). Great review!

  2. I’m reading Namesake, but I’ll go ahead and grab this one too. Remember I still have the pile of Taschen books.

  3. Wonderful review! Wasn’t this well done!! Really, it is the reader who makes assumptions about things that are not really spelled out by the author. And if you really think about it as a chess game and read the names of the chapters…well it becomes more obvious. I love twisty books like this one!

  4. “This novel is built up in series of twists and turns that keeps reversing my assumptions and expectations, to an extent in which I don’t know who really the characters are.”

    Hmmm…sounds like a winner to me, with literary flair and a twist.

  5. […] re-read. Books of which I want to be rid of my memory are Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris, and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. These are novels with a twist at the […]

  6. […] himself from other suspicion that is right. The one ending that I didn’t see it coming was Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris. The worst, or the most disappointing rather, unexpected ending is Bel Canto, […]

  7. […] himself from other suspicion that is right. The one ending that I didn’t see it coming was Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris. The worst, or the most disappointing rather, unexpected ending is Bel Canto, […]

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