Source: Review copy
Publication: 4th August 2021 from Orion
My thanks to Orion and Tracy Fenton for an advance copy for review
Now I’m in charge, the gates are my gates. The rules are my rules.
It’s an incendiary moment for St Oswald’s school. For the first time in its history, a headmistress is in power, the gates opening to girls.
Rebecca Buckfast has spilled blood to reach this position. 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. And with it, the remains of a body are discovered.
But Rebecca is here to make her mark. She’ll bury the past so deep it will evade even her own memory, just like she has done before. After all…
You can’t keep a good woman down.
I attended a grammar school in Yorkshire for a short time. It was called Prince Henry’s Grammar School and when I went, selective schooling was still in play. So I was more than intrigued when one of the three schools featured in Joanne Harris’s excellent A Narrow Door is King Henry’s Grammar School, though this one is for boys.
You can read A Narrow Door as a stand-alone, but in fact it is the third book in a series which is set in St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys. As we begin the book, Rebecca Buckfast, nee Becky Price, has taken over as Headmistress of St Oswalds Grammar and has already made it co-educational. She’s the first woman in the School’s History to be Head and she is determined to modernise and make the required changes to the failing school and its curriculum.
Roy Straitley is the Classics Master, and he epitomises everything that is old school. From his tatty cardigans and Latin jokes to his inability to actually call Rebecca Headmistress or grasp the pronouns of a trans pupil in his class. Roy’s not keen to change, but he recognises the inevitability and that Rebecca is a formidable opponent. So the two embark on a kind of chess game, going back and forth with their stories. For Rebecca needs something from Roy; he has knowledge of a dead body in the school grounds which she needs him to be silent over. And Rebecca has a story to tell, one that concerns Roy’s old friend and colleague Eric Scoones, who Roy now knows was an abuser at the school. That knowledge leads him to question himself– did he know deep down and refuse to acknowledge it? That worries him and contributes towards Rebecca’s ability to lure him into her spider’s web of inactivity.
So the two settle down to a discussion over quite a period where Rebecca uses her skills to dissuade Roy from reporting the body, citing loyalty to the school as well as Roy’s friendship with Scoones to persuade him to listen to all that she has to say. Much of the book is an interchange between these two in 2006, with flashbacks to an earlier period in 1989. Chapters are headed with either a White Queen or a Black King to denote who is narrating.
Joanne Harris’ novel takes us through Becky’s difficult past. She is tormented still by the disappearance of her elder brother, Conrad when she was only 5. She still has nightmares about what happened – her memories are fragmented and through the book she will piece together what really happened and why and we will see the fall out that pervades through to the present day.
Rebecca is a fascinating character. She has been through a great deal to get to where she is today and she’s not giving that up lightly. She still has a lot to do and is determined that none of the privileged white men who have stood in her way all her life will stop her now. Her time to elevate women has come and she will use her new found power to achieve that.
With only Roy standing in her way, she is like a Queen Spider, weaving a web of stories to tie him down with her gossamer threads; holding him still until she is ready to decide what to do with him. In the meantime she sings a soft story to keep him calm.
She tells him of her life as a child and what it was like having Conrad as a brother. It’s an attractive picture of contentment and protection, but as she narrates her tale, and prodded by some returning, repressed memories, she begins to think that the mirror of reflection into which she has been gazing is cracked. What she thought she knew, may be a distorted reflection of what really happened.
As Rebecca begins to piece together the fragments of memory, it becomes clear that not everything is as she initially remembered and to make matters worse, the nightmares that have plagued her since childhood are now manifesting themselves in her daughter, Emily and she is powerless to do anything about it.
In a long term relationship with Dominic, who loves her and wants nothing more than to make her his own, Rebecca is struggling against the patriarchy at the same time as she is learning to confront who she really is and what she has done to get her to her current position of power.
The question is: now that she is seeing things clearly for the first time, what will she do to make sure she stays Queen of the web?
Joanne Harris’s novel is multi-layered. It is mesmering, clever, and really quite dark; all the while masquerading as polite discourse. This is masterful storytelling with exquisite characterisation and plotting that draws the reader into the centre of her web to be glued there as the story unfolds. Beautifully structured, this novel is divided into parts which echo the 5 rivers of the Underworld in Greek mythology.
There are many themes woven into Harris narrative, from the way in which sexism is used by men to keep women from achieving through to unreliable memory and the tension between progress and tradition. All of these play out in the context of a dead body lying in a trough and a complex web of betrayal, lies and deceit.
Verdict: An explosive tense psychological thriller that offers a portrait of a much wronged child who progresses into womanhood ready to tear down everything and everyone that has stood in her path. Tense, dark and chilling , A Narrow Door is a mesmerising, rich and complex read. I loved it.
Joanne Harris is an Anglo-French writer, whose books include fourteen novels, two cookbooks and many short stories. Her work is extremely diverse, covering aspects of magic realism, suspense, historical fiction,mythology and fantasy. In 2000, her 1999 novel CHOCOLAT was adapted to the screen, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. CHOCOLAT has sold over a million copies in the UK alone and was a global bestseller. She is an Honorary Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, and in 2013 was awarded an MBE by the Queen.