The School Inspector Calls! by Gervase Phinn
|The School Inspector Calls! by Gervase Phinn|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Rebecca Foster|
|Summary: In this quaint third novel of Phinn's Little Village School series, the Yorkshire town of Barton-in-the-Dale fends off a new housing development, puts on a production of The Wizard of Oz, takes in a troubled new pupil, and sees both a nascent love triangle and a wedding.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 416||Date: November 2013|
|Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton|
|External links: Author's website|
If you've read any of Gervase Phinn's fictionalized autobiographies (the Dales series), or either of the previous two volumes in this Little Village School set, you'll know what to expect here: cosy English fun set mostly around a primary school, full of Yorkshire dialect, quirky characters prone to malapropisms and many 'kids say the darndest things' moments.
We pick up the story of Barton-in-the-Dale just after the Easter holidays. The village school is in the throes of an amalgamation with Urebank, another nearby school whose leaders are making the process as difficult as possible. The Barton head teacher, Elisabeth Devine, certainly has her work cut out for her: in addition to preparing for both the school merger and her summer wedding to the local GP, Michael Stirling, she has a new pupil who is proving to be very disruptive, an odious man who wants to purchase the track alongside her cottage as an access road for a new housing estate, and a visit from the Minister for Education and Her Majesty's school inspector.
Some favourite characters from the previous books are prominent again: precocious Oscar has taken an interest in genealogy, chavvy Chardonnay will sing Dorothy's solo in The Wizard of Oz, and the newly appointed (young, female) curate of the parish, Ashley Underwood, unwittingly acquires not one but two suitors – the Irish gardener from the manor house plus a new character, Elisabeth's soldier brother, Giles. As usual, Mrs Sloughthwaite, village shopkeeper and gossip extraordinaire, entertains with her constant malapropisms; perhaps the best one here is when she confusedly replaces 'fixated' with 'asphyxiated'.
Miss Sowerbutts, Barton's formidable retired head teacher, is another stand-out character. As the book begins, she is on the rampage yet again, this time over the proposed housing estate. She circulates a petition to protect her precious cottage view, making herself unpopular in many circles – until a stroke drastically improves her disposition. Whether it was the brush with death or the Lourdes holy water brought in by Dr Stirling's housekeeper, after her miraculous recovery she is a new woman. It might not be the most believable plot strand, but it conveys a valuable message: no one is ever too far gone to change for the better.
Phinn, who was himself a teacher and school inspector for decades, is sensitive to the variety of children's needs and talents. Even when depicting children with autism and ADHD, he never simplifies them into caricatures of little monsters. If there is something rather twee about his sentiments ('I don't believe that any child is just plain bad… Every child matters, however demanding he might be,' Elisabeth declares; 'Good teachers change lives,' says another colleague), the reader will nonetheless have no reason to doubt Phinn's sincerity. It is more difficult, perhaps, to excuse the addition of a military character, which allows him to shoehorn in an unequivocal 'let's support our troops' message. This is one instance where Phinn's simplistic approach unhelpfully obscures the nuances behind serious issues.
The novel's quaint Yorkshire setting is reminiscent of both James Herriot's veterinary memoirs and Anthony Trollope's humorous tales of low-key village machinations. (Indeed, one character, only mentioned in passing, is even given the name of Dr Trollope.) It is unfortunate, however, that Phinn resorted to such a generic title – and one that he had even used before, for his contribution to the Pocket Penguin series of short excerpts – and thereby passed up the opportunity to link this book to the previous two in the series (entitled The Little Village School and Trouble at the Little Village School). The school inspector's visit is such a minor incident here that it seems strange to prioritise it in the book's naming.
Like a classic Shakespearean comedy, the novel ends with a wedding, and Phinn has set up plenty of plot lines that will continue into future novels, including the arrival of a new vicar, curate Ashley's professional and romantic choices, and the ongoing work of the school amalgamation. Some of the characters may seem impossibly nice, but this does mean that Phinn's books are entirely pleasant to read. You won't find anything groundbreaking or challenging here, just good old-fashioned yarn-spinning. Still, especially in the run-up to Christmas, there is something undeniably lovely about reading something completely inoffensive – and even uplifting.
Further reading suggestion: For a taste of the author's similarly cheery nonfiction output, try Road to the Dales: The Story of a Yorkshire Lad. An Irish Country Village by Patrick Taylor should also appeal to those who like cosy fiction about rural ways.
You can read more book reviews or buy The School Inspector Calls! by Gervase Phinn at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The School Inspector Calls! by Gervase Phinn at Amazon.com.
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