A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris (2021, Pegasus Books)
When Rebecca Buckfast takes over as head of St. Oswald’s school, you want to root for her success. It’s time this 500-year-old school for boys had a good shaking up. Admitting girls as students and putting a strong female leader in charge is just what this stodgy institution needs. Or is it? Is Bex Buckfast the right woman for the job? Or are the holes in her memory and the blood on her hands enough to disqualify her from the position?
Joanne Harris’s latest novel, A Narrow Door, is a cunning psychological thriller with atmosphere to spare and a tricky puzzle of a plot that comes together quite cleverly in the end. The point of view goes back and forth between Buckfast and a venerable St. Oswald’s classics teacher, Roy Straitley. Straitley’s narrative appears as diary entries recording the increasingly disturbing story “La Buckfast” discloses to him over tea and biscuits as the novel unfolds. There is a braided timeline, with the story moving back and forth between 1989 when Buckfast is starting her teaching career and her family and the “present” of 2006. However, the mystery at the heart of the story dates back to Buckfast’s childhood and the disappearance of her brother Conrad.
There were a few moments when Buckfast’s repressed memories strain credulity and her emotions (or maybe Harris’s writing) are overwrought. Get on with it! But for the most part, Harris keeps the pacing steady and the pressure mounting right to the satisfying end.
Only when I wrote this review did I realize that A Narrow Door is the fourth book by Joanne Harris set in the fictional town of Malbry and the third set at St. Oswald's. The first books in this series are Gentlemen and Players (2006), Blueeyedboy (2011; Malbry but not St. Oswald’s), and Different Class (2017). Other reviewers are consistent in the opinion that A Narrow Door can stand alone, but several suggest that reading the first two St. Oswald's books offer an introduction to the characters and grounding in the St. Oswald's setting that could make for a richer reading experience. I don't doubt.