Chocolat is one of those rare tales where I enjoy the movie just as much as the book (I’ve noticed that often happens when I read the book second, which I believe was the case then). So I was thrilled when exploring a second-hand bookshop some months ago to find that author Joanne Harris had written a sequel, The Lollipop Shoes. During the same bookshop browse I thought another of her novels, Gentlemen & Players, sounded interesting but decided I shouldn’t really buy two books by the same author (yes, my bookshop rules are often arbitrary). Later, I bought another of Harris’ books, thinking it was Gentlemen & Players, but found myself plunged into a world of priests when I thought I was getting genteel English schoolboys. It was the wrong book. I’m yet to finish it. (note that’s not necessarily a reflection on the book. My reading desires change rapidly.)
However, last weekend I finally managed to get my hands on the right book and boy was it worth it. I raced through Gentlemen & Players in a day, utterly captivated and desperate to find out the end. And when I got there, I was astounded. As I said in my tweeted assessment, it’s been a long time since a book’s reveal surprised me quite so much.
Gentlemen & Players is set in St Oswald’s, an old fashioned English boys school that is being dragged (as Pratchett would say) kicking and screaming into the century of the fruitbat. While the students no longer board at the school, there is still a live-in groundskeeper, masters in dusty gowns, pretentious room names (the bell tower? really?) and Latin. But Harris does a great job of filtering in modern life (it’s set in approximately 2005, when it was published) with much discussion of technology and paperwork taking over the building (not to mention modern languages), and a key point of the plot based around computer hacking and viruses. The chapters are alternately narrated by Roy Straitley — St Oswald’s eccentric Latin master and, as he would have you believe, last tenuous link to Tradition — and the mysterious “Mole”, the child of a former St Ozzie’s groundskeeper with a serious capacity to hold a grudge.
From the first sentence (“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past fifteen years, it’s this; that murder is really no big deal.”) to the discovery of the Mole’s identity and the fallout, Harris builds the suspense masterfully. She also brings the characters to life well — I got a good feel for Straitley and what it must be like to be almost-65 and feeling pushed out of the place and job you love. Mole seemed to have an endless capacity for inhumanity, but when their backstory was revealed, piece by piece, I could almost understand why and how. Plus even the background players have their secrets and skeletons, many of which turn out to be key. A few of the plot twists I did work out, but some of my revelations had me scrabbling back through the pages to double check a surname or other detail to see if I’d remembered correctly. I was certain I’d worked out who Mole was, only to discover I was utterly incorrect (which, I suspect, was Harris’ intention).
I would rate this as one of the best books I’ve read this year, which is to speak very highly of it since it’s almost the end of the year and I’ve read an awful lot of books.