Map of Blue Book Balloon

19 August 2021

#Review - A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris

A Narrow Door 
Joanne Harris
Orion, 4 August 2021
Available as: HB, 448pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781409170815

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of A Narrow Door via NetGalley to consider for review.

'Becky was an only child, and yet she had a brother'.

The first thing I should say about A Narrow Door is that it's the third part of a trilogy of psychological thrillers set in and around the same private grammar school, St Oswald's, and the town of Malbry. I hadn't read the previous books (shame on me) but A Narrow Door works very well as a standalone thriller, while hinting at the background that has already been established and bringing back familiar characters.

The book is structured as a sort-of dialogue between the new Head of the school, Rebecca Buckfast, and old-school (in every sense of the world) Classics teacher, Roy Straitley. Buckfast is a new broom, having assumed the Headship after a period of turbulence. She is the first ever woman Head of what has previously been a boys-only school. Straitley initially presents as a crusted remnant of the Old Guard, but while the traditions of the school are written on his heart, he's actually much more complex. In a subplot, Buckfast's merger of the school with its' girls equivalent has added a new member to Straitley's familiar clique of "Brody Boys", who in the course of A Narrow Door, comes out as trans. We see Straitley working, with eventual success, to accept this. Similarly, while sceptical of Buckfast, he pays close attention to her story and often appreciates her troubled past and her various dilemmas.

Buckfast and Straitley are looking back from 2006 to events both in 1989, when she was a young supply teacher at St Oswald's even more hidebound local rival, King Henry's, and in the early 1970s when her older brother Conrad, then a King Henry's boy, disappeared. The conversation is brought on by the apparent discovery, on the school grounds, of a corpse and a King Henry's prefect badge.  So Conrad's shadow, or ghost, hangs heavily over a story that is already presented as part of the past ('Everyone in this story is dead, or changed beyond recognition... The house is no longer a shrine to [Conrad]... No one living there listens to the numbers stations anymore.') but a past that Becky seems to interrogate (she knows who lives in that house now).

On the surface, Becky Buckfast is trying to persuade Roy Straitley not to report the discovery, for the good of the school. Perhaps "persuade" is the wrong term - overtly, she's explaining aspects of her earlier life and  appealing to his interest in a friend, another former teacher, Eric Scoones, who has retired under a cloud. Then, she says, they can, together, make a decision.  Underneath, of course, she's working flat out to influence him, drawing on a lifetime of men patronising and underestimating her. 

The way that the apparent dialogue works is complex and absorbing. Though it's presented as it might have been spoken, what we read in Buckfast's account isn't all told to Straitley, and nor are his ruminations on it, though addressed to a "you", actually all said out loud to her. We may infer, I think, that she does more of the talking, but exactly how much each says, we are left to wonder. We "hear", therefore, a great deal of commentary from both, and soon appreciate that games are afoot (Buckfast: 'I'm rather good at meeting men's needs... They need to hear their praises sung') if not what the rules are.

So we know very soon that Buckfast is the unreliable narrator supreme, that she's delaying some information, suppressing or spinning others - but not what, or exactly, why. Harris takes her time laying out Becky's earlier life, centred on the trauma of her brother's disappearance when she was six years old and the effect it had on her and on her parents. They are subsequently cold to her, obsessed with Conrad  and refuse ('cocooned in their grief like a pair of dead moths') to accept that he might be dead, laying a place for him at the table and speaking of him in the present tense. Darker still is her father's descent into conspiracy theories about "numbers stations" - the image of the stricken house silent apart from a radio reciting strings of numbers in a flat voice is a strong and compelling one - and the periodic appearance of some imposter trying to impersonate Conrad.

Alongside this we see the 1989 Becky, having endured nearly twenty years of this frosty treatment, reappear for her temporary job at King Henry's (where she was with Conrad when he vanished). She's not yet the armoured, assured Head of 2006 and suffers greatly from the sneering patriarchy of the school Common Room and of the boys she's meant to be teaching. Yet she has a nose for secrets, of which there are many in this book. Becky takes the King Henry's job to the disgust of her boyfriend and later fiancé Dominic ('charming, funny and smart') who has 'rescued' her and her young daughter from a life of wearying poverty. Dominic seemed to me to have somewhat controlling tendencies: the background to these is just one of the fascinating secrets that is gradually made clear. Indeed secrets - and, closely related, memories, fantasies and lies - prove to be at the centre of the narrative (the story itself, the version of it that Becky is giving to Roy, and the acting out that all involved here have been engaged in ('They look so real, those memories, and yet they were a performance'). There is a hole in the middle of everything in that Becky does not (did not) remember what happened to her brother while, as a six year old girl anxious to please her parents, the police and adult authorities in general she was continually pressed to expand on the confused impressions she did have, leading to a whole structure of fantasy growing to fill the gap.

The exploration of that fantasy, which to a degree the adult Becky now seems to have weaponised in the service of her plans, and its relation both to the person she has become and to the role she now fills, makes up the bulk of this story and it is completely, absolutely, enthralling. (At times the book can be very disturbing, and Becky's childhood fears - never far from the surface - erupt to consume her). Beware, however, for nothing here is quite what it seems.

Harris's unwrapping of the all the layers here fascinates, casting light especially on patriarchy, variously represented by the cliquish schoolmasters, everyday men who, Becky recalls, 'at twenty three I was quite unaware of how often [they] turned to locked at me', and her patronising and controlling fiancé ('To be a woman... is to be the constant recipient of unwanted pieces of male advice.')

In all, a wonderful read and I am kicking myself for having missed the previous part of this trilogy, something I need to put right very quickly!

For more information about A Narrow Door, see the publisher's website here.

1 comment:

  1. The first one Gentlemen and Players was superb! You'll love it.