Book review Gentlemen and Players

"Gentlemen and Players," by Joanne Harris, 2006, Harper Perennial.

What a well-crafted book "Gentlemen and Players" is, carefully plotted to have the maximum impact not only at the end, but all the way through. There's no wonder the sections are labeled like parts of a chess match -- passant, check, mate -- and the character have names such as Knight and Bishop.

The two narrators, Keane/Pinchbeck/Snyde and Straightley, alternate chapters as they would take turns at the board. And slowly the tension builds ...

Straightley is a long-tenured teacher at a high class boys' school in England, St. Oswald's. He's known as much for his strictness as for his Latin lessons. But his students also love him, and he loves them, almost as deeply as he loves the school's rituals and the institution itself.

Readers will love Straightley, who gives us a window not just on his school, but on the frustrations of being one of the "old guard" as young upstarts trample on the traditions he holds dear.

They'll feel for the other narrator, as well; the perpetual outsider yearning to be welcomed in.

This narrator, a newly hired teacher, uses the pseudonym "Keane" as a current surname. With the birthname Snyde, Keane grew up the child of the St. Oswald's porter, a sort of handyman/groundskeeper -- a position considered lower in status than that of the school's other staff and students.

Bookish and smaller than boys his age, Snyde is tormented by bullies at the public school. But after sneaking onto the grounds of St. Oswald's and donning, he becomes Pinchbeck -- and fits right in. Pinchbeck is accepted as one of the boys as he takes part in classes, joins intramural competitions and makes his first friend.

Pinchbeck loves St. Oswald's for all it represents -- and hates it, as well, because he can never be a real part of it. And so Pinchbeck, now Keane, returns as adult to destroy the thing Snyde could never have.

"To be seen is all I ever wanted; to be more than just a fleeting glimpse, a 12th man in this game," Keane writes. "Even an invisible man may cast a shadow, but my shadow, grown long over the years, has been lost among the dark corridors of St. Oswald's."