Synopses & Reviews
For generations, privileged young men have attended St. Oswald's Grammar School for Boys, groomed for success by the likes of Roy Straitley, the eccentric Classics teacher who has been a fixture there for more than thirty years.
This year, however, the wind of unwelcome change is blowing, and Straitley is finally, reluctantly, contemplating retirement. As the new term gets under way, a number of incidents befall students and faculty alike, beginning as small annoyances but soon escalating in both number and consequence. St. Oswald's is unraveling, and only Straitley stands in the way of its ruin. But he faces a formidable opponent with a bitter grudge and a master strategy that has been meticulously planned to the final, deadly move.
"Bestseller Harris (Holy Fools) exposes the brittle line dividing the haves and have-nots in this disturbing yet strangely rewarding morality tale set in the hallowed halls of St. Oswald's, an aristocratic British boys' school hovering on the edge of extinction. Audere, agere, auferre (To dare, to strive, to conquer), the school motto, is something young outsider Snyde, whose father has become St. Oswald's porter (or caretaker), takes painfully to heart after infiltrating the institution as a student under the alias 'Julian Pinchbeck.' Snyde's secret crush on Leon Mitchell, a charismatic upper-class boy, leads to tragic consequences that include the senior Snyde's losing his job. Fifteen years later, Snyde returns, masquerading as a teacher and plotting retribution. Classics teacher Roy Straitley, with his easygoing, ruefully resigned viewpoint, nicely contrasts with Snyde's relentless first-person intensity. Straitley, who loves St. Oswald's, unwittingly proves to be a formidable opponent and provides Snyde with a vital lesson: not every chess game ends with checkmate. Agent, Howard Morhaim. 5-city author tour. (Jan.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Constantly surprising and wickedly fun....Beyond the book's considerable entertainment value, Harris has written an unsettling reminder of how much our orderly lives depend on a fragile level of trust." Ron Charles, The Washington Post
"[M]oves skillfully between the two perspectives and between past and present in a well-crafted mystery. Harris shows a deep understanding of the politics of academia and the routine of the classroom, as well as the demands of a solid mystery." Library Journal
"[A]n atypical thriller. Rather than suspense, dramatic irony drives the plot; and two participants, both a little unreliable, tell the story. It's a lot for one novel to do, and Harris isn't quite able to force all the pieces into place." San Francisco Chronicle
"The problem with giving Snyde a narrative soapbox is that the more the reader knows about this character, the less plausible this character becomes. A daring gambit, poorly played." Kirkus Reviews
"Harris shows what a master storyteller she is through the play and counterplay of current happenings twisting through the telling of what went on before. The story builds suspensefully and cleverly with surprises and turns to a satisfying denouement." School Library Journal
For generations, privileged young men have attended the elite St. Oswald's School for Boys, but as the new term gets under way, a number of increasingly devastating incidents occurs, including murder, leaving the unraveling school in the hands of the only person who can save it, Roy Straitley. Reader's Guide available. Reprint. 60,000 first printing.
Friendship, murder, revenge, and class conflict collide in an upper-crust English school. As a new term gets under way, a number of annoying incidents befall students and faculty, escalating to murder.
About the Author
Joanne Harris is the author of seven previous novels Chocolat, Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the Orange, Coastliners, Holy Fools, Sleep, Pale Sister, and Gentlemen & Players; a short story collection, Jigs & Reels; and two cookbook/memoirs, My French Kitchen and The French Market. Half French and half British, she lives in England.
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
The favorite book of the young Snyde is The Invisible Man. Poe's law is also quoted: "The object that is hidden in plain sight remains unseen longest." Through childhood and into adulthood, how does Snyde, in fact, become invisible?
Early in the novel, young Snyde says, "I felt cheated, as I often did when faced with the threat and assurances of the adult world, which promises so much and delivers so little." What does this say about the character? Give some examples of ways in which the adult world has cheated Snyde. Which do you feel has the longest lasting impact on Snyde as an adolescent? As an adult?
Throughout the novel, Snyde remembers days as a student in Sunnybank Park—and the desire then to be a student at St. Oswald's. What do you believe would have happened had Snyde been enrolled at St. Oswald's as a student? Would such a student have thrived academically? Been accepted socially? How might things have played out differently, if at all?
While at Sunnybank Park, Snyde had a young student teacher, Miss Potts, who "liked to be popular-to be important." She goes about this by taking an active interest in her students and especially their problems-things the older teachers do not notice. She realizes something is wrong with Snyde. How might things have been different if there had been more teachers who took notice of the pupils' problems early on?
"Fallow offends me," Snyde says of St. Oswald's current day groundskeeper. It is not the occupation that offends Snyde, but how Fallow executes his tasks: sluggish, ignoring his duties, not taking pride in his work. The exact opposite of the way Snyde's father worked. What does this contempt of Fallow say about young Snyde's filial feelings?
Snyde says of Anderton-Pullitt: "there is one of his kind in every year. Shunned even beyond being bullied." Could Snyde be identifying with Anderton-Pullitt? Which student, if any, at St. Oswald's most resembles the young Snyde? Do any resemble Leon?
Early in his life, Snyde developed a feeling of entitlement for "that childhood. The one I deserved," a life of privilege. Where do you think the roots of these sentiments began?
"I can identify with a boy like Knight," Snyde says. "I was nothing like him-infinitely tougher, more vicious and more streetwise-but with money and better parents I might have turned out just the same." What does this say about Snyde's decision to use Knight-of all boys-in the plan to destroy St. Oswald's? Is it because Knight is weak or because Knight is a reminder of who Snyde could have been?
Straightly comments on how "St. Oswald's has a way of eating those things. The energy; the ambition; the dreams" of its faculty. In light of this, or perhaps in spite of it, Straitley's goal in life is clear: to reach his Century and retire with honor. Why do you suppose this is so important to him?
A continual theme throughout the novel is nature vs. nurture. Do you believe a person is born evil or do the circumstances of that person's upbringing cause these traits? When talking about Leon, Straitley seems to believe some kids are just born bad. How is this different from Snyde's belief?