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A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris - Review

Saturday, September 18, 2021

I've written before that I'm a huge fan of Joanne's first few books and have reread quite a few of them. I've liked her books for about twenty years now and one of my favourite books, Five Quarters of the Orange is by Joanne. However, I've not kept up with her last few books; I don't like her mythology stuff that much. But then my friend Laura told me this book was coming out, and as I loved the previous two books so much, I ordered it straight away. Then, when it arrived, I picked it up almost straight away too. 

It's the third in a series of books about St Oswald's School, a grammar school for boys somewhere in Yorkshire. The first two are Gentlemen and Players, which again is one of my favourite books and which came out in 2005, and Different Class, which came out in 2016 and about which I don't remember much. There is also a book called Blueeyedboy which is set in the same town and has some of the same characters, but isn't set in the school. I didn't like Blueeyedboy and found it quite disturbing. 

So, we're back at St Oswald's with Roy Straitley, the Latin teacher who the boys call Quasimodo and who inhabits the Bell Tower. The New Head is La Buckfast, who was part of the previous Crisis Intervention Team. She is an ambitious woman, although slightly cold. She has admitted girls to the school, in an attempt to get more cash for the School after its catastrophic year. She also has a muddled and tragic history which is linked to both St Oswald's and King Henry's, their rival boys school also in the town. 

There's a new sports hall being built, and on the day before the first day of term, Straitley's Brodie Boys turn up and tell him that they think they've found a body in the foundations of the new building. Straitley goes to investigate and does indeed see what looks like bones and a bundle of rags and, crucially, a King Henry's Prefect badge. Straitley takes it to Ms Buckfast. He assumes the body is that of Conrad Price.

Ms Buckfast starts to tell him the story of what happened in her younger years. When she was five, her fourteen year old brother Conrad went missing. He was a pupil at King Henry's and was supposed to pick her up from school, but when he didn't arrive she walked along to King Henry's and waited for him in the locker room. She was found there some hours later, talking about a green door and "Mr Smallface". Conrad was never found and Becky never understood what she meant by either of those things. 

She then grew up in a loveless household where her parents spoke about Conrad as if he had merely popped out. They refuse to get rid of any of his things and are taken in by conmen over the years posing as Conrad. Becky had a baby at sixteen, Emily, whose father was in Different Class but I've forgotten entirely what happened to him. 

We then meet Becky again in 1989, when she is twenty-three and has qualified as a teacher. She worked atr Sunnybank (also in the same town) and met Dominic there, a teacher a decade older than her. But then she gets a job at King Henry's. Dominic doesn't want her to work there, claiming that they're all stuff snobs, but she takes a supply job. On her first day, Eric Scoones, Straitley's friend, who was found out as an abuser of boys in previous books, mistakes her for one of the boys. It's an inauspicious start and later the same day Becky sees a boy with a Prefect badge who looks just like Conrad. His disappears, though, and a few more spooky things like that happen. She makes friends with Carrie, the hippy drama teacher, and doesn't tell Dominic about the bad things. However, Emily then starts talking about Conrad and "Mr Smallface". 

Meanwhile, back in 2006, Straitley is struggling to cope with the changes in School and his health is worsening... 

I did like the book, and I liked Becky even though she's quite difficult to like. I love Straitley and always have throughout the other books. I can imagine his classroom so well, I really like it. I found some of the going backwards and forwards in time from 1971 when Conrad disappeared to 1989 and to the "present" time of 2006 quite confusing. I also think there were genuinely a couple of mistakes - the character Scoones moved between the schools as a teacher but I think there was a mistake as to where he was when at least once - but I tried to not let that detract from my enjoyment of the book. I'm giving this four out of five and the book is now destined to be lent to my mum who I hope will enjoy it too!

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