A Narrow Door: A Novel
“Harris is to be congratulated on her ability to build a story with a maze full of twists and turns, memories false and true, and a totally unexpected ending.”
Memories. That’s the premise that runs through Joanne Harris’s new book, A Narrow Door.
Rebecca Price Buckfast (Becks) has achieved the almost impossible. Headmaster of St. Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys Academy and overseeing the merger of Mulberry House, the sister school for girls, with St. Oswald’s—a situation most of the male teachers find intolerable.
To make Becks’ point about women as leaders in any situation, Harris puts the reader in Rebecca’s mind, but also in her memories. It seems the one memory Becks can’t get away from are the unanswered questions about her brotherConrad’s disappearance several years earlier.
Becks was only five years old and she adored her brother, who was a teenager when he disappeared from King Henry’s School. The memories come rushing back when the Brodie Boys, a collection of young men (and one woman who believes she is a young man) tell their teacher, Roy Straightly, that they believe they have found a body on the school grounds.
When Roy shares this information with Becks, there is a sense that Conrad’s body has been found after all these years. But questions arise. How did his body get from King Henry’s School to St. Oswald’s School? Or was it there all the time?
Not to leave the reader in the dark, Harris sets the stage to reveal events through first-person points of view between Becks and Roy. When Becks is reluctant to bring the police into the discovery, Roy fails to understand her hesitancy. To satisfy his curiosity, and still take no action on the find, Becks takes on a role similar to that of Scheherazade as she drags out Conrad’s story over several meetings with Roy. Roy, in turn, finds himself awash in memories of times past at the school.
The story moves back and forth from 2006 to 1989, a ploy that requires a bit of attention on the part of the reader to follow and understand.
As the story progresses, each meeting between Becks and Roy moves closer to an understanding of Conrad’s fate, and Becks’ memories of her brother begin to take a darker turn as reality takes her down a difficult path.
Beck’s mother and father have never coped well with Conrad’s disappearance, and they refuse to believe that he is dead. Their beliefs leave them open to hucksters and grifters who tend to take advantage of them while Becks is unable to convince them that Conrad is truly gone.
And yet as Becks’ memories begin to take on new form, she recalls her father’s moments of anger with his son. “In wake of new memories, I began to remember the anger that had hung in the air between them . . . anger ready to erupt at the slightest provocation.”
Harris brings several other characters into the story including teachers at the school and a particularly tricky group of boys who were best friends with Conrad.
The story moves forward, and with each telling Becks’ memory begins to clarify regarding her brother and his behavior. She begins to doubt that her recollections about a brother she loved were correct—she even begins to wonder if she ever loved him.
Harris’s characters are alive and believable as each one is introduced. She is clever about how she brings each of Conrad’s best friends—Mod, Fattyman, and Milky—into the present day, surprising Becks that she did not see them for who and what they really were.
Harris is masterful at winding and unwinding Becks’ memories—from adoring her brother, to fearing the sounds emanating from drains, creatures that existed only in her mind . . . or did they? “And the old and long-buried memory came gushing out like a blockage from a pipe, and I found myself falling into the dark, like Alice down the rabbit hole.” It is not until the reader gets to the end of the story that the story really ends.
Harris is to be congratulated on her ability to build a story with a maze full of twists and turns, memories false and true, and a totally unexpected ending.