Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris

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Although tagged with an undeserved reputation for writing fluff, her almost fairytale plots have frequently baited a barbed hook. It's a technique that has come to the fore in Gentlemen & Players; if her breakthrough novel, Chocolat, was a confection of Gallic whimsy then this is a literary gobstopper with an aniseed heart.

It's a new year at St Oswald's Grammar School for Boys and things are unravelling faster than a scarf caught on the school gates. An archaic institution on the edge of a small nameless English town, it has fallen foul of "inspections, restructurings, treason and plot". Or that's how Roy Straitley, ageing Latin Master and resident cynic, sums up the beginning of term. He's about to notch up his hundredth season, a century of chalk dust and detentions of which he is gruffly proud. However, a Teutonic twit of a German professor, an anally retentive Headmaster and a series of vicious pranks conspire to scupper his anniversary. The real problem is that an anonymous impostor lurks among the intake of new teachers: the son of a disgraced former porter. Flashbacks from this interloper's teenage years neatly set the scene for the present-day revenge quest.

"Better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody," claimed Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith's famous fraud. It's a mantra that this equally talented phoney has adopted with gusto. With the narrative switching between Roy's crumbling career and the deranged mission of his nemesis, Harris incites sympathy for both warring factions. In particular, the twisted logic of the younger man is utterly seductive. He's raised in the glare of the shiny, happy people his father serves but has to attend a dreary comprehensive full of "slappers, toerags and proles". Eventually he resorts to stealing pass keys and prowling the hallowed halls and lichen-lined battlements of St Oswald's at night. After he befriends a genuine "Oswaldian", there is a wonderful moment when the pair take the school lawn mower on a joyride and for a moment he is one of the golden boys: "We were magical; we were Butch and Sundance, leaping from the cliff's edge, leaping from the mower in a haze of grass and glory and running for it, running like hell as the Mean Machine kept going in majestic, unstoppable slo-mo towards the trees." After he's rejected, I couldn't help cheer him on as he returns for his own vindictive form of carpe diem.

Unpleasant flotsam bobs in the wake of many a public school education: the arrogance, the snobbery, the interminable roll call of nicknames. Yet Harris tempers this with the allure of such places: St Oswald's is, after all, a site of tradition and accomplishment. "The flat echo of boys' feet against the stone steps; the smell of burning toast from the Refectory; the peculiar sliding sound of overfilled sports bags being dragged along the newly polished floors." It's all a "metaphor for eternity", and that's appealing on a base sentimental level.

Harris knows her subject and the novel fits into its genre exceedingly well. Roy is a contemporary take on the redundant Classics tutor from Terrence Rattigan's The Browning Version and all the class-bound malice has the flavour of Stephen Fry's prep-based fiction. But ultimately, Harris has taken what Benjamin Disraeli termed "the microcosm of a public school" and slotted her own romantic teachings into the curriculum to produce a wildly entertaining lesson on the twin perils of envy and elitism.

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