A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris: Brimming with the enthralling atmospherics and psychological intensity - book review -

The newly named, co-educational St Oswald’s Academy – a well-rooted, strictly boys-only grammar school for the previous five hundred years of its history – is on an explosive life and death collision course in the third book of Joanne Harris’ brilliantly clever and entertaining Malbry Cycle.

Thursday, 26th August 2021, 4:55 am
A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris

Tradition and progress, privilege and subjugation, past and present, truth and lies…

If you haven’t already entered the hallowed portals and narrow doors of North Yorkshire’s unforgettable ‘Ozzies,’ and spent time with the charming, learned and witty veteran classics master Roy Straitley then this electrically-charged thriller from one of our most gifted and multi-talented writers is a treat you wouldn’t want to miss.

Harris, an Anglo-French author whose books include fourteen novels, two cookbooks and many short stories, is noted for her exceedingly diverse work covering aspects of magic realism, suspense, historical fiction, mythology and fantasy, and whose 1999 novel Chocolat was adapted for the big screen.

A Narrow Door follows on from Gentlemen and Players and A Different Class and stars Rebecca Buckfast, St Oswald’s new headteacher and a woman with a shadowy past who is intent on tearing apart – piece by piece – the elite world that tried to hold her back.

Brimming with the enthralling atmospherics, psychological intensity and the acutely observed old-school dynamics which have been the hallmark of these gripping stories, this haunting new mystery comes with a brilliantly conceived feminist twist and takes readers to some of St Oswald’s darkest and deadliest hidden corners.

During his thirty years at St Oswald’s Grammar (now St Oswald’s Academy) in Malbry, North Yorkshire, Latin master Roy Straitley has seen all kinds of boys come and go but now unprecedented changes are transforming the school... not least the arrival of girl pupils and the historic establishment’s first woman headteacher.

Roy, who has recently witnessed a shocking scandal, a murder and the disgraceful demise of his fellow teacher and good friend Eric Scoones, had considered ‘walking the plank’ in the face of the disruption caused by an influx of girls with their new scents, high-pitched laughter and salads for lunch, but decided that he doesn’t know what he would do with his freedom.

Meanwhile, in the new headmistress’s office, Rebecca Buckfast (who had a brief stint at the school as deputy head Becky Price during one of its crises) believes she earned this job, not through the normal male channels of privilege but through her own strength and ambition.

St Oswald’s, with all its relentless patriarchal baggage, is now hers. ‘The gates are my gates. The rules are my rules.’ All Becky needed was that ‘narrow door’ to creep in unseen and spin herself ‘an empire of silk.’

And what her main adversary Roy Straitley doesn’t yet know is that what Rebecca Buckfast has survived would leave him in shock and horror. She spilled blood to reach this position and at barely forty, she is just starting to reap the harvest of her ambition.

As the new regime takes on the old guard, the ground shifts, not least where a new building is being erected, and the gruesome discovery of the remains of a body by a group of Roy’s favourite pupils, known as the ‘Brodie boys.’

The revelation of that body could damage Becky’s empire and she is here to make her mark. She plans to bury the past so deep it will evade even her own memory, just like she has done before. She knows where Roy’s weakness lies... and you can’t keep a good woman down.

A Narrow Door – which can easily be read as a standalone but is far more fun if you read the cycle in its proper order – is guaranteed to keep readers enthralled as Harris turns up the creepy classroom gothic to its highest setting for a compulsive tale of unburied secrets and restless ghosts.

Set between different timelines, the glory of Harris’s story lies in the constant tension between tradition and progress, and our two charismatic and complex protagonists who become increasingly mired in a mesmerising psychological maze full of hidden clues, black humour and a palpable sense of menace.

And with a dual narrative that alternates between the deeply conservative Roy Straitley and fiercely ambitious Becky Buckfast – an irresistible anti-heroine whose wickedly clever scheming is much akin to her famous namesake Becky Sharp – expect an exhilarating, high-stakes game from the very first page.

For Becky, her role at St Oswald’s is to not just finally squeeze herself and her seismic changes through the school’s narrow doors but to represent the future… and bury forever the secrets that could precipitate her downfall.

For Roy, St Oswald’s is quite simply his life… as both man and boy, he has always belonged and been comfortable there, never needing to fight his way through that ‘narrow door’ to enter the school. But Roy represents the past and teaches a language from the past, and his fear of change, his secret sexuality and his dread of what the future may now hold could be his final downfall.

With its dark overtones, chilling mystery, emotional power, and a delightful but terrifying sense of feminist-flavoured mischief, A Narrow Door keeps Harris at the top of her game.

(Orion, hardback, £20)