Gentlemen and Players

A civilized tale of a British boarding school with traces of Goodbye Mr. Chips and Dead Poet’s Society slowly evolves into an insidious pursuit of revenge and murder in Joanne Harris’s Gentlemen and Players.  

Harris concentrates on the plot to overturn the school and destroy the reputations of the faculty, but the underlying theme is Snyde’s pitiful teen years, yearning for a different life.  Snyde grew up poor, living in the rundown gatehouse of St. Oswald’s, a posh school for boys, but he was able to insert himself anonymously into the school society.  Pretending he was a student was simply a matter of stealing the uniform and avoiding detection. Eventually, he finds a friend at the school; Leon unknowingly helps Snyde’s efforts to assimilate.  As the story opens, Snyde – with a new name and a fake resume – is one of the new teachers at St. Oswald’s, and the mole that will destroy everyone there to revenge an incident that changed his life.

Harris, better known as the author of Chocolat, flips back and forth from young and then grown-up Snyde and Roy Straitly, the 64 year old Latin teacher trying to make it to his 100th term.  To identify the speaker, Harris only reveals subtle clues, changing time and place, sometimes making the story hard to follow.  Using the analogy of a chess game, Harris plays her pieces as slowly as a real match.  False rumors, well-placed incriminating evidence, and innuendos that lead to gossip and then suspicion – the moves that lead to dishonor and murder.

As you patiently read through the endless descriptions of school boy pranks, teacher idiosyncracies, administrative foibles, and the computer shock to elders, you might be tempted to skip the details, but Harris drops hints that are easily missed; this is a book you need to read slowly.  Harris hits you with a surprise ending you will not anticipate; I won’t spoil it by telling you, but it was worth the drudgery of getting there.

After the plot’s climax, Harris offers an insightful perspective on the futility of revenge that reminded me of Christie Clancey’s essay for the New York Times.

“The whole idea of revenge… is a childish day-dream. Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless…”

George Orwell