"How strange now to see Johnny Harrington reborn into such a disguise; how strange, and yet I am not surprised. Haven't I always known he'd come back? Haven't I known it for twenty years?"
The speaker of that quote is Mr. Roy Straitley, Latin Master at St. Oswald's Grammar School for Boys, a selective private school in England. Straitley has been part of the action at St. Oswald’s for 30 years and has seen much during this time. However, in 2005, when this story is set, he comes upon a student named Johnny Harrington and just knows he has met him before. Straitley disliked young Harrington on sight as he felt there was something terribly wrong and cold within him.
"Harris obviously has fun toying with her readers as we find early passages about Harrington making reference to potential criminal behavior.... DIFFERENT CLASS is indeed a different kind of story for Joanne Harris, and one in which the lessons learned at school may not all be confined to the classroom."
Thus we have the premise for Joanne Harris' latest book, an entry in what is referred to as the Malbry novels. For followers of Harris, you will wish to note that DIFFERENT CLASS is set in between GENTLEMEN AND PLAYERS and BLUEEYEDBOY. Although each title can be read as stand-alone stories, they still refer to similar characters throughout their pages. The setting for each is the fictional town of Malbry, and St. Oswald's is found in all three.
Harris has often used mystical and fantastical themes in her novels (for example, CHOCOLAT), but DIFFERENT CLASS may be the first one to breach the outright supernatural as a subplot. What puts this psychological thriller in that realm is the fact that the protagonist, Straitley, feels for sure that he has seen Harrington before. Harrington comes from an ultra-religious family, so it is no surprise when he requests a meeting with Straitley to discuss a spiritual problem with “a friend.” The friend to which Harrington refers is, in his words, suffering from possession.
Straitley is not sure how to take this. Is this dark young man serious in his belief that a fellow classmate is possessed, or could this be a brilliant attempt at misdirection? In any event, readers will be planted to their seats as the story jumps between decades at St. Oswald's as the truth behind what Straitley fears comes to light. Straitley is not built for confrontation, but he will have to make an exception in this case as Harrington has gone out of his way to target him with personal and unexpected attacks as part of some unknown plot.
Harris obviously has fun toying with her readers as we find early passages about Harrington making reference to potential criminal behavior. This is particularly evidenced in Mr. Straitley's Latin class when his use of the term “merda” is flipped around in Harrington's brain to the homonym “murder.” Demonic possession? Murder? Certainly not the sort of behavior typically found at St. Oswald's.
Straitley is on a solitary mission. He wishes not only to clear the name of a former colleague brought down by scandal and eventual imprisonment but also to rid St. Oswald's of the deadly force represented by Harrington. DIFFERENT CLASS is indeed a different kind of story for Joanne Harris, and one in which the lessons learned at school may not all be confined to the classroom.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 4, 2017