Harris, Joanne. Different Class. New York: Touchstone, 2016.
In this masterful suspense novel, aging Latin teacher Roy Straitley confronts more than the typical schoolboy carousing as an old student comes back into his life. In the early 1970s, a tight-knit group of three boys clamor for the attention of their favorite teacher, Harry Clarke. They water his plants, fetch him cups of tea, and listen to records together on their lunch break. It isn’t uncommon for boys to form such relationships with teachers, and nobody thinks anything of it.
Note: some minor spoilers follow.
One of the boys comes to Straitley with an odd question: What do you do when you think a friend might be possessed? As the story unfolds through both Straitley’s and the boy’s points of view, we learn that this friend is gay. The boy’s evangelical upbringing has him believing that homosexuality is literally due to demons. He does his very best to “cure” his friend by whatever means necessary.
In the early 1980s, one of the boys—now a young man—comes forward and accuses Clarke of sexual abuse when he was a student. The resulting court case shocks the school when it becomes clear that Clarke is indeed a gay man and in a relationship with one of the boys, though they both argue that their relationship only started once the young man was of legal age. The entire school is scandalized, the other two young men are witnesses for the prosecution, and Clarke is jailed.
Straitley wholeheartedly trusts Clarke and believes that the young men are lying. Now, in 2005, one of them returns to the school as the new Head. Straitley must kowtow to the new administration, which is undermining school traditions in the name of progress, including pushing elder members of the staff to retire. Straitley must untangle the web of lies and half-truths to get to the bottom of what really happened with Clarke and the boys, as well as save his own skin as a teacher.
I loved this novel. The writing is bold, wry, and exquisitely suspenseful. The narrative ably moves between decades, following the lives and thoughts of both Straitley and one of the boys, as well as providing insight into the secondary characters. Straitley is revealed to be a champion for his queer students, even as he faces his own biases. In the 1970s timeline, he is surprised by Clarke’s coming out to him, but ultimately accepts him. In the 2005 timeline, two students come to him to ask for help with homophobic bullies, and he rises to the challenge, fighting for their rights as students and humans. The characters are well-rounded and believable, with excellent dialog both internal and interactive. I recommend this book for public and academic libraries, as well as for lovers of literary thrillers.
Different Class is part of a trilogy that can be read in any order.
Content note: Several semi-graphic instances of animal abuse; non-graphic mentions of pedophilia.