A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris


A Narrow Door is, quite simply, practically perfect. It is beautifully written with a plot which enthrals, is creepy and sinister with a tension that has you holding your breath as layer upon layer of secrets, lies and intrigues are unravelled.

This psychological thriller has two narrators:  Ms Rebecca Buckfast and Mr Roy Straightly – respectively the new Headteacher (always referred to as Headmaster by Straightly) and Classics teacher at St Oswald’s, previously an independent grammar school for boys now an academy which includes girls. The girls represented new money and a chance to recover the school’s reputation after an unfortunate incident the year before. When I read A Narrow Door I didn’t realise that it was the third book in the Malbry series featuring St Oswalds, following on from Gentleman and Players and A Different Class which explained a couple of queries I had but in fact it reads well as a stand-alone.

The time is 2006. The day before the new term, Straightly’s Brodie Boys inform him that they have discovered what looks like the remains of a body on the building site, which is to become the Gunderson Building in the school grounds. The teacher presents a worn but still recognisable prefect’s badge for King Henry Grammar School that he found there to The Headmaster and realises she has been expecting this. “It’s quite a long story,” she says.

And so begins the power struggle between them. One represents the future, one the past but in their present is a game of chess so complex the reader needs to run to keep up. At various points, Roy Straightly comments that he is mesmerised by her. She has reeled him in and dangles titbits. And this is what Harris does to the reader as Rebecca Buckfast recalls her fifth birthday, and her brother’s fourteenth thirty years before. She is left traumatised when Conrad simply disappears from his school never to be seen or found. The brother had terrified her with stories of Mr Smallface who lived in the sinkhole and she tells the police that the monster had taken him through a purple door…

Her parents never recover from the loss of their perfect son and Becks is left very much to her own devices. At sixteen she gets pregnant, doesn’t divulge the name of the father, but eventually gets through university to become a teacher, eventually working as a supply in 1989 at King Henry Grammar School where her brother had last been seen. “Men like you underestimate women like me” says the woman who is determined to make men who tried to hold her back pay for their sins. The reader certainly needs their wits about them to pick up the clues as they are disseminated in this enthralling narrative.

Harris plays with and discusses the concept of memory. How lies and deceit are viewed differently through the prism of time. This interweaving of different timelines is fascinating and cunningly keeps the reader on tenterhooks until the final, sinister dénouement.

Joanne Harris is an Anglo-French author, whose books include fourteen novels, two cookbooks and many short stories. Her work is extremely diverse, covering aspects of magic realism, suspense, historical fiction, mythology and fantasy. In 2000, her 1999 novel Chocolat was adapted to the screen, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. She is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and in 2013 was awarded an MBE by the Queen. A Narrow Door is available now in hardback, ebook and audio by Orion Fiction.

Anne Coates is a journalist and author of the Hannah Weybridge crime series currently being republished by Red Dog Press. The first, Dancers in the Wind is now available as a hardcover, paperback and e-book. For more information, please visit www.reddogpress.co.uk.