Title: A Narrow Door

Author: Joanne Harris

Publisher: Hachette, 2021, RRP $32.99 (TPB)

The Author

Joanne Harris is an Anglo-French author, an Honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.  Her novels and short stories cover a diverse range of subject matter, including suspense, magic realism, mythology and historical fiction. The author also has three cookbooks to her name, but her most notable work was the 1999 novel Chocolat.

The Book

The story takes place in the context of St Oswalds Academy, an English public school with more tradition than its faded reputation would suggest.  Previously a grammar school for boys, St Oswalds is now co-ed and has a new Head, Rebecca Buckfast, an ambitious woman. As the first female head of school, Ms Buckfast is determined to make something of St Oswalds, herself, and the girls that now attend those hallowed halls.  But this story is no stylised interplay between stuffy English academics bantering barbed witticisms in their battle over the future of St Oswalds.

A group of boys venture into the out-of-bounds building site for the new school swimming facility and find what appears to be human remains.  The boys have a reputation for mischief.  They report their find to aging Latin teacher Roy Straitly, he understands boys. When Roy goes to verify their story, he discovers a prefect’s badge from the neighbouring school, King Henry’s Grammar. 

Torn between duty and institutional loyalty, Roy reports to the headmistress.  A dark past threatens to undermine the future.  Can Rebecca Buckfast impede Roy’s sense of duty long enough for the past to remain buried?

There are two primary voices in this book, Rebecca Buckfast’s and Roy’s.  Roy symbolises innocence that blindly recognises the truth only when it is too late. His faith in old associates and traditional values is challenged by the story Rebecca doles out to him in dribs and drabs, while school life resumes for the Michaelmas term.

A Sunday in with Joanne Harris

at the guardian

Rebecca’s story is one of prejudice and putdowns at the hands of male privilege and of her struggle to establish herself. Piece by piece, stage by stage, the reader is led through Rebecca’s life from a small child to present day.

The underlying male-female role tensions are on obvious display as some kind of stalking horse. Cleverly done and blatant in their exposure of male prejudice and privilege, they serve to heighten the suspense and soften judgement the reader might have for Ms Buckfast.

A Narrow Door is well written; although I did not find it a page turner, it did keep me coming back and intrigued.  What was the story going to reveal? Paedophilia? Murder? Or something more sinister? For a person new to the craft of writing and storytelling, this is an instructive read.

Reviewed by: Frank Thompson

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher