Award-winning British author Joanne Harris is a consummate writer, wasting nary a word as she teasingly peels back the many layers of her characters and unfolds a plot of intrigue, betrayal and friendship.
Perhaps best known internationally for her acclaimed 2000 novel Chocolat, which was turned into a film starring Johnny Depp that same year, her catalogue of writings is quite diverse.
Different Class is a dual-voiced narrative in first person, set in and around St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys over two time periods – 1981, when we hear primarily from a disturbed young student, and 2005, when aging Latin master Roy Straitley takes the narrative reigns. Both characters reveal the unfolding mystery in both time periods, but it’s not until each side of the tale comes to a head in 2005 that their stories synchronise in a gripping finale.
In the latter time frame, St Oswald’s is struggling to overcome a recent tragedy that resulted in the death of a student and the loss of their headmaster. Steeped in tradition, the school and Straitley struggle to accept their rapidly changing world when the past comes back to haunt them and the future threatens to leave them behind. Former student Johnny Harrington is brought in as the new Head, along with his new ‘crisis team’ to rebrand and modernise the school. Twenty-four years prior, Harrington is implicated in another scandal which will result in a teacher being jailed.
The first person narrative of both storytellers is superbly realised. A single word; a throwaway comment; a simple action: all provide insight into the loveable but staid mind of Straitley, and the confused, vicious mind of the unnamed student.
The characters are brought to life with immense skill by readers Steven Pacey and Ewan Goddard respectively. Pacey, in particular, is one of the best audiobook narrators of our day. His nuanced characterisations immediately let the listener know who is speaking. Goddard has much less experience but you wouldn’t know it listening to his stellar reading. He completely embodies the vile, troubled student.
Different Class is the third book in Harris’ stories that centre around the fictional town of Malbry. It follows on directly from the first of these, Gentlemen and Players, although it is a stand-alone novel that needs no introduction. Having not read the previous two books, they’re now most certainly on the radar.
The unabridged audiobook of Different Class runs 14 hours and 55 minutes and is available from audible.com.au. It’s a compelling exposé on the place of tradition, the strength of loyalty, and the deepest, darkest secrets that can utterly destroy lives.
Reviewed by Rod Lewis
Rating out of 10: 9
Publisher: Random House Audiobooks, available through audible.com.au
Release Date: 21 April 2016