Book Review

A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris

Now I’m in charge, the gates are my gates. The rules are my rules.

It’s an incendiary moment for St Oswald’s school. For the first time in its history, a headmistress is in power, the gates opening to girls.

Rebecca Buckfast has spilled blood to reach this position. Barely forty, she is just starting to reap the harvest of her ambition. As the new regime takes on the old guard, the ground shifts. And with it, the remains of a body are discovered.

But Rebecca is here to make her mark. She’ll bury the past so deep it will evade even her own memory, just like she has done before. After all…

You can’t keep a good woman down.

A Narrow Door is the latest instalment in a series of books set in the fictional village of Malbry, Yorkshire.  While the series does feature some recurring characters, these novels can be read as a standalones.  I read Gentlemen & Players a long time ago (shortly after it was published in 2005) but I don’t remember anything about it, and I haven’t read blueeyedboy or Different Class at all.  While some readers may feel more comfortable reading the preceding novels first, I didn’t feel that I was at a disadvantage for diving straight into A Narrow Door without doing so.

A Narrow Door is a dual timeline novel, alternating between 2006 and 1989.  The 2006 narrative is set in and around St Oswald’s Academy – previously St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys.  It’s the start of the September term (Michaelmas, if you prefer) and we enter a school in a state of flux as it opens its doors to female pupils for the first time, but also as Rebecca Buckfast has been appointed as the school’s first female headteacher. The discovery of a body on the school grounds prompts Rebecca to share her story – the 1989 narrative – with Classics teacher, Roy Straitley. 

I loved seeing Rebecca’s tale unfold and like Roy – her audience in the novel – couldn’t wait for the next instalment.  It’s a twisty tale of lies, betrayal, and deceit that takes the reader along some unexpected paths before it ends.  There are multiple threads to this narrative as Rebecca (then Price) begins work at King Henry’s Grammar School and her battle to be accepted by the predominantly male staff.  It’s also where her brother – who disappeared when she was five years old – was last seen, and Rebecca hopes that she may be able to find some information about his disappearance eighteen years earlier.  We also see a more personal side to her character – her relationship with Dominic, but also the somewhat difficult relationship she has with her parents who still expect Conrad to return at any time.  Her brother’s disappearance was obviously a significant event for the family, and Rebecca grew up in the shadow of her brother’s disappearance, feeling like nothing so much as a consolation prize for her parents. 

I’m not sure whether I was meant to, but I liked Rebecca a great deal.  She’s a woman who has reached the top despite the obstacles she’s faced along the way, and one who will not let anything hold her back now.  I felt a huge amount of sympathy for her as I read about her childhood, and her relationship with Dominic – while it has its positives – is not entirely healthy, with a degree of control being exerted upon Rebecca, often couched in terms of “I just want what’s best for you”.  The Rebecca we meet in 2006 has become a formidable – and indeed ruthless – woman, but the younger Rebecca doesn’t quite exhibit the same strength of character.  That said, she has a battle on her hands to be accepted as a young woman in a man’s world, and it’s a challenge that she quickly proves equal to.  There are some amusing moments as she stands up for herself and makes it clear that she will not be pushed around.

I believe that Roy has been a main character in earlier novels in the series, but here he takes a more secondary role.  He doesn’t seem entirely happy with the changes that Rebecca makes, although he does understand the need change, and even comments on the favourable press reaction where the school has previously been seen in a negative light.  Despite this, there’s a sense that he’s been dragged out of his comfort zone and that he’d like nothing more than a return to the status quo.  He clearly respects Rebecca although he doesn’t always agree with her, and he insists on calling her Headmaster, despite the gender implication inherent in that title.  As an aging teacher approaching retirement, he seems to represent the old and provides a neat contrast to the new world that Rebecca is ushering in. 

A Narrow Door is a wonderful slow-burn of a thriller.  It’s a twisty narrative with a wonderfully complex plot, and I loved seeing the various threads untangle as Rebecca’s story is revealed.  It also provides a look at the challenges many woman face in trying to achieve a place in a man’s world – and which draw upon Harris’s own experiences as a teacher – and I loved the subtlety with which Rebecca handles those who want to keep her in place.  Highly recommended.


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