'Gentlemen and Players' by Joanne Harris
Date of Publication: First published 2005, reviewed edition published 2006
Publisher: Black Swan Books
Book Score: 85/100
Concept: 4 / 5
Difficulty: 3 / 5
Enjoyment: 3 / 5
Length: 4 / 5
Reread ability: 5 / 5
Gentlemen and Players is one of the more recent books from Joanne Harris, the author of the critically acclaimed Chocolat. The pricing was fair - the usual £6.99 you have to pay for softback novels here in England. The length adds value for money too, weighing in at just over 500 pages long - long enough to tell a good yarn without getting arduous.
The subtitle on the front cover - 'her irresistible new besteller' is well deserved; I read it from cover to cover in two days, and even then I ended up staying up until one in the morning on the first night before I could force myself to sleep. One of the main reasons Ms Harris' books are so un-put-down-able are because of the enormous whopping twists she puts in them. This also makes Gentlemen and Players particularly difficult to review without ruining it, but here goes (nevertheless, I've included the spoilers [tagged; obviously] for those who won't read this anyway).
From the offset, this book is uniquely crafted. It revolves around two characters marked out in the chapters by the King and Pawn chess pieces respectively. Not only this, but the 'pawn' character, known only as 'Snyde', remains rather ambiguous until the end...
But more of that later. The story is well laid out, and carefully seperated into sections and chapters. Nevertheless, the book requires the reader's full attention at all times - not only does it suddenly switch between the two characters quite suddenly at times, but it also twists, meanders and manipulates so much that I guarantee you'll have to look back through the story once you've finished reading it to pick up on some of the points. This is no book for the faint of heart.
Gentlemen and Players is set in the fictional St Oswalds boys grammar school somewhere in the north of England. It is written in the first person and switches between the childhood memories of the elusive Snyde, and the present-day happenings as narrated by Snyde and an eccentric old Latin teacher by the name of Roy Straitley.
'Right,' I see you thinking, 'a novel set in some musty old English school that bears a passing resemblance to Harry Potter's Hogwarts. How quaint.' However, I can assure you that murder, arson and terrorism weren't on young Harry's 'to do' list.
It starts in much the same way as Rowling's Potter books: the start of another school year, new students; new teachers. For Straitley, it also means his 100th school term, by the end of which he plans to retire. As a classic 'tweed jacket' scholar, he views the new teaching arrivals to the school with a hint of arrogance - after all, he is pretty much king of the roost - unknowing that Snyde, in the guise of one such upstart teacher, plans to knock him from his perch and destroy the school, piece by piece.
As the novel unfolds, Snyde wreaks havoc on St Oswalds, crippling the foreign language department and bringing the school's reputation to its knees before preparing to administer the coup de grace that will bring the whole school crashing to the ground. The question of why anyone would wish to do this to the school is answered through the flashbacks to Snyde's past as a 'fake schoolboy' at St Oswald's some 18 years ago... carefully constructed by Harris so as to make the final twist so much more shocking.
For those who wish to read the story without spoilers, I suggest you avert your eyes now.
the big twist!
Now to justify the score. The reason why I haven't rated Gentlemen and Players up there with some of the greatest is simply because I think the twist ruins the story, as the reader is forced to re-evaluate their image of Snyde. Early on in the story, it is likely that the reader will place the character of Chris Keane as the suspect teacher, and Harris makes every effort to gently nudge you in that direction - up to the point where old Roy Straitley realises who the culprit is and prepares to confront him. It all fits into place - Keane's rather suspect notebook with judgemental evaluations of different teachers, his actions in relation to Snyde's narration. The truth however, is surprising - Snyde is not a man, but a woman.
The problem is that this type of twist is not only annoying but has been done multiple times before. I remember disliking Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment due to the revelation that most of the all-male cast were actually women. It's not that I dislike female characters. It's just the fact that the character you've become so comfortable with - and rather attached to - some 400 pages in, the one whose voice echos in your head as you read through the text; is actually not anything like you think they are. It just seems alienating and wrong.
Gentlemen and Players is not a bad story by any reckoning. It is remarkeably well written, and also rather touching in places. The characters are wonderfully rendered and Straitley's humour never falls flat. It is an original story, uniquely told, and totally deserving of the title bestseller. However, for the reasons stated above, it can never achieve the title of 'masterpiece' - you get so into the story, so touched by the characters, that it hurts to see that you were wrong all along.
Still, If you've ever felt like taking down your old high school, read this book. Read it twice. The level of intelligence and love that has gone into its making shines through, and you will feel no small measure of perverse delight as Snyde wages a guerilla war against the school - a war of gentlemen and players.
Pros: Lovingly crafted and extremely entertaining.
Cons: VERY deep and often philosophical, it requires a sharp mind to read. The twist is rather frustrating too (but that could just be me).