on June 7, 2011
In this spectacularly subtle novel, Giller prizewinner Elizabeth Hay (for Late Nights on Air) braids family history and natural history, and paints an intricate, beguiling portrait of rural Canadian life in Saskatchewan and in the Ottawa Valley. Spanning the years 1927-2007, it opens up with the brutal murder of young schoolgirl Ethel Wier in 1937 Argyle (Ottawa Valley), a silver pail of chokecherries spilled near her bruised and battered body, half-full, and the other pail empty.
This tragedy unfolds not in isolation, but connects gradually to a confluence of other markers in the history of the Flood family, and the land, and culminates in an unbearably beautiful graveyard scene that encompasses various strands and prongs of multi-generational lives.
"You touch a place and thousands of miles away another place quivers. You touch a person and down the line the ghosts of relatives move in the wind."
Historian and writer Anne Flood takes a back seat in the first two-thirds of the novel, relating the story of her fiercely independent aunt and schoolteacher, Connie Flood, a woman of "unzipped, risqué fun." This also signals the incipient events of Connie's family commingling with Anne's. And at the library, Anne stumbles across some facets of history that have fallen into the crevices of time.
"...a child discovers something the parent has neglected to tell her and brings it into view again, naming it and locating it and establishing its importance." And this is the thematic thrust of the novel.
Sentient life is thickly threaded with the landscape, from the fertile marshland to the ripe vegetation, the narrow dirt roads and woody smells of childhood, the wide flat rocks and wildflowers, the dry and liquid movement of the seasons.
"Here is the country not in its Sunday best, but in its old clothes, unpaved, unfenced, full of character, ungroomed, unvisited, barely penetrable."
Connie is the centerpiece for much of the novel, along with the two male characters that affected her deeply, but in different ways. "Parley" Ian Burns, the principal and schoolteacher that she worked with in 1929 in Saskatchewan, when she was just eighteen, both repulsed and attracted her. She ran into him again in 1937, when she was a journalist in Ottawa. Both times, Parley was close by a tragedy that occurred locally. Nothing to pin on him, except his nature.
"All around her was the curdled essence of this clever man, who found ways to bind you to him, to get you into his pot, where you simmered."
Burns was an inscrutable, fastidious Francophile who was thwarted by his own failed achievements as an actor and playwright, and used his authority and wolfish charm to terrorize the students and magnetize the teachers. Connie sympathized with him at intervals, when he revealed himself in ways that brought out pity and sorrow in her heart. She gave him the benefit of the doubt for a while, and then a tragic incident with a schoolgirl brought about a summary exit of characters from this county.
"The town doesn't exist anymore. It rose overnight from whole grass into wooden sidewalks, railway station, grain elevators, houses, stores, churches, school. Then life rubbed the other way and the pattern disappeared."
Parley had staged a theatrical version of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, with the willowy thirteen-year-old Susan Graves as the lead. He was a brazen, ruthless director, able to bring out the animal, erotic facets of the story, and ripen Susan into a purposeful actress, a "sunned cat" of a Tess--the physical transformation of a young girl. However, he maintained his hold on her after the play, with a staggering crescendo.
Michael Graves--Susan's brother--was a dyslexic student before dyslexia was even recognized, and his broody, outdoor intelligence and artistic sense earned Connie's respect and compassion when he was fourteen years-old and struggling with words. He was one year older than Susan but three grades behind, and his self-esteem was nil until Connie helped bolster his enthusiasm for learning and participating in the classroom.
"A child lies like a grey pebble on the shore until a certain teacher picks him up and dips him in water, and suddenly you see all the colours and patterns in the dull stone..."
As events move along, the intersections of time and tragedies, students and teachers, historians and artists, past and present, and memories and absences fall into place. And always the land. The landscape is an intoxicating character in this book.
Anne eventually becomes a more active character in the story as well as the historian. This is a slow, gradual cohesion, not a narrative meant for anticipation or epiphanies, not a story centered on plot. Characters and themes glue the story together. It is driven by its own poetic odyssey of land and civilization, nature and generations.
I have never been this compelled to quote so much from a book in a review, but as is stated so well in the story, "A sentence bears the weight of the world." Every sentence in this rare and polished story is like a pure, clear drop of water, and every drop spreads into the next, and the next, like a current, forming a flowing river of words that course into the mouth of the story.
It would be impossible to cover this novel adequately in a brief review, as there are several characters, movements and kaleidoscopic shifts and turns that bring the story into focus, and several changes that may or may not appeal to some readers, but amass sensually and delicately. There is more a nexus of theme than of story--it is found within its infrastructure. Perhaps the difficulty in identifying the story's core could be summed up within Anne's reflection that:
"There is such intricate movement in things as they happen and such stiffness and resistance when you go back and try to reconstruct them." However, in Hay's hands, there is no stiffness or resistance; it is full of soul, and the essence of people and the land.
This is a story most appreciated by reading it twice, with a slow, patient, and languid turning of pages. It is a meditative, seeping novel, an exquisite story of the narrowness and infinity of humanity and family, of generations and ties, of obsession and passion, of things unseen but powerfully registered.
There is a deep and reaching symmetry, although it could also be said that it has an asymmetry. That statement and its apparent contradiction isn't a flip remark--its paradoxical implications are felt and can be reconciled after the book is read. Also, much that is oblique comes into view and into the reader's consciousness gradually, or with a multiple readings and reflections.
There are triangles of fate and unrestrained destinies. As Connie asserts, we carry the past forward, even when things and people are obliterated. Take this book to a quiet corner, and experience its unhurried grace. It will marinate in your consciousness and nourish your literary soul long after the book is closed. Hay has constructed a dynamic and towering work that keeps on giving.
Reason for Reading: I've been interested in reading this author for a while now and haven't got around to it yet. The early 1930's and the Saskatchewan setting pulled me into starting off with her latest book.
An excellent book! Though a hard one to describe. The plot has many layers and is meandering to the point where it is not exactly what drives the book. The book is most certainly character driven and the relationships between these characters are what propels the story along. The story covers the time period from 1929 to 2008 and focuses on one Connie Flood, a school teacher, journalist, traveler; a woman of independence who takes lovers as she wants them and lives life to its fullest according to her small needs though she has a large presence. The book is told from the point of view of Connie's niece, who is telling the story from the first person, looking back telling a tale of which she is omniscient from each individual character's thoughts and feelings. This pov was hard to get used to, I must admit. The narrator only appears in the beginnings of the story a few times and when the word "I" is used I found it confusing to remember that "I" was not Connie but the narrator, Anne. This becomes more clear a little over half way through the book when Anne actually becomes a character in the story but then the flipping from near past to far past with this continued point of view still felt unusual to me. Now, it's not that I was totally annoyed with the pov, it was just hard to remember who was telling the tale, and it did slow down my reading speed.
The characters and their relationships, mostly triangles, are what make this book such an enticing, intense read. First of all, the element that brings all the persons together and moves the plot along is the brutal, unrelated, deaths of two young girls some years apart. The same character's are around at these times and this is what sets Anne off into investigating her aunt's past, perhaps to solve an unsolved crime. I've discussed Connie and Anne, but also there are two men to round out the main characters. Parley Burns, school teacher, principal, refined, detached, strict, perhaps mentally unstable, who has feelings for Connie. Secondly Michael, an older student at the school, not much younger than Connie herself who is slow and ridiculed as such; he is what would have been called dyslexic in the future, but not mentally challenged at all, and Connie takes a shine to him in trying to teach him to read. In fact, they take a shine to each other. The triangles that shape the book are principal, teacher, student then later on husband, wife and lover, a chance meeting turns us to aunt, niece, lover and in the background there is even grandmother, mother, daughter to overcome in the end.
A wonderfully written book, I enjoyed tremendously with characters that will remain with me, especially Parley and Michael; but a slow-paced meandering read that will take your attention to appreciate fully.
With her new novel 'Alone in the Classroom', Elizabeth Hay is taking us on a journey into an inner world that is, at least in one aspect or another, familiar to all of us. Each of us has been 'alone in the classroom', just staring at walls or out of a window, struggling with a crucial test; or, emotionally alone, subdued, frightened... in front of a teacher or a principal. It is often said that memories of (positive or negative) school situations are among the most vivid recollections we carry with us through the rest of our lives. Learning life's lessons, re-discovering the past, memorable individuals and relationships, are at the core of Hay's beautifully crafted and deeply affecting novel. With her gentle touch, exquisitely perceptive observations, expressed in a richly imaginative and poetic language, Hay brings her characters to life as complex individuals, who can be nurtured or harmed by those whose paths they cross, again and again, as if they were all entangled in a loosely, or sometimes tightly, knotted net of relationships. Be they teacher or pupil, lover, friend or foe, or family, they share intimate bonds that filter through several generations.
The novel opens with one of several disturbing and tragic events: One day in August 1937, thirteen-year-old Ethel Weir wandered off by herself to pick chokecherries that grew abundantly in the brush at the edge of the woods near her home in the Ottawa Valley. By sunset she was found, viciously murdered. Many years later, Anne, the first-person story teller, has returned to the town, the place of her mother's childhood, to retrace what happened that day and in the weeks and months that followed. "Stories from her past draw me on", she muses. "The shadows of the underbrush, the evening light and imminent sorrow, until I stumble on what I've been looking for without quite knowing what it was..." In her mind she will connect this heartbreaking event with other incidents, some painful, tragic, others hopeful, beginning with what occurred nine years earlier in the small town of Jewel in southern Saskatchewan...
At one level, 'Alone in the Classroom' is very much a "family tale". Through Anne's unearthing, rearranging and retelling the many memory snippets, the family chronicle evolves into something different, a deeper, more complex and wide-ranging story. She compares herself to "a child [that] discovers something the parent has neglected to tell her and brings it into view again, naming it and locating it and establishing its importance." As we follow Anne's quest into the past, we discover a many-layered tapestry, made up of strands of close relationships between individuals and the places they lived in. Central to her search is her much admired aunt, Connie, "full of stories and laughs, [...] risqué, unzipped, fun". Connie was not always like that, of course, not when she started her first teaching position at the age of 18 in Jewel in 1929. She was inexperienced, insecure, and as much fascinated and attracted as nervous and even repulsed by the new principal, "Parley" Ian Burns. There was something dark and unsettling about Parley that made her watchful and uneasy. "Parley was the volcano that rearranged land and air" she would tell Anne later, "females displeased him as much as they pleased him." Very early Anne drops an ominous hint: "Given what Parley Burns did and what happened to him in the end, Connie never tired of mulling over what kind of person he was deep down." However, Parley is not the only man Connie kept "mulling over". Others also leave a deep and long lasting mark on her... One of those will eventually bind Connie and Anne in more ways than one. And Anne, gently, has moved from observer to active participant in the story.
Hay's novel is rich in characters that each occupy an important place in the novel. However, the events that bring them together are spread over several decades and are so much intertwined that it is impossible to delve into these in a review without revealing too much of the novel's content. Yet, the dramatic events and scenarios, while vividly evoked and well developed in themselves, do not necessarily represent the foreground of the novel, at least for me. Rather, they are woven, like vivid and colourful threads into the fabric of the narrative. They can be understood as time specific snapshots or illustrations, designed to capture the essence of the central characters, thereby enriching Anne's and our understanding of the influences they had on each other and their surroundings and, in some cases, on the next generation and her. "[Anne] thought about Connie's view that we carry the past forward even when people and things are obliterated." Towards the end of the novel the narrative circle takes us back to a reflection made at the beginning: "So interwoven are the strands of human life and so rich is the loam in which we lie that the same cemetery holds my grandmother and Ethel Weir and the man accused of her murder and the principal who knew them all, the bane of Connie's existence and therefore an abiding interest of mine."
In essence, Hay's novel can be described as a richly imagined, finely structured, and lyrically rendered psychological detective story as much as a "family tale". Like imagining a memory map, we are invited to connect the people and their stories, in either direct or indirect ways. "...maps may look stationary, but boundaries shift, worlds open up, other worlds and civilizations pass away. And none of us is stuck or alone, because coursing through us is everything that brought us to where we are." Readers will relate in different ways to this kind of novel. For me, it is a book that I wanted to savour slowly, stepping back and retracing some of the clues left earlier to connect the past with the present and, in particular, to ponder the many extraordinary perceptive reflections and images that make this book so special. [Friederike Knabe]
McClelland & Stewart|April 10, 2012|Trade Paperback|ISBN: 978-0-7710-3797-9
Elizabeth Hay's highly acclaimed, national bestseller now in a deluxe paperback edition.
Hay's runaway bestseller novel crosses generations and cuts to the bone of universal truth about love and our relationship with the past. In 1930, a school principal in Saskatchewan is suspected of abusing a student. Seven years later on the other side of the country, a girl picking wild cherries meets a violent end. These are only two of the mysteries in the life of the narrator's charismatic aunt, Connie Flood.
As the narrator Anne pieces together her aunt's lifelong attachment to her former student Michael Graves, and her obsession with Parley Burns, the inscrutable principal implicated in the assault of Michael's younger sister, her own story becomes connected with that of the past, and the triangle of principal, teacher, student opens out into other emotional triangles - aunt, niece, lover, mother, daughter, granddaughter - until a sudden, capsizing love changes Anne's life. Alone in the Classroom is Elizabeth Hay's most tense, intricate, and seductive novel yet.
Hmm....what to say about this book. I'm not really sure I enjoyed it all that much, I think being nosy more than anything is what kept me reading until the end rather the story itself. I was more interested in finding out the ending to this Parley Burns character who I absolutely despised. I just wanted, wished, needed this man to meet a fateful end and kept reading for that reason alone. I found the story quite mundane and slow going and not all that interesting and don't understand all the hype I heard about this novel. This is the second Elizabeth Hay novel I've read and had difficulty reading both so I think I'm done with this author.
Perhaps you will enjoy it and think it to be the greatest the story ever. All I can say is "to each his own."
on June 10, 2011
Elizabeth Hay has done it again! Alone in the Classroom is an addictive read but very different from Late Nights on the Air. The story unravels slowly and then circumstances and events catch you unprepared. I was hooked and then could not put it down. I must say that I prefered the beginning and the story of Connie rather than the story of the niece at the end, but I can't fault Hay for this because the story is so compelling even at the end. Ottawa and the valley is the setting for most of the book, although the beginning takes place in Saskatchewan. Hay has sealed her fate as one of Canada's 'must read' novelists with Alone in the Classroom.
on August 29, 2011
To quote the review by the Globe and Mail of this book, "Alone in the Classroom is meant to be read slowly, or even better, read twice." I agree with this statement, but only because I found the book to be so utterly confusing that I found, page after page, I had to go back and reread what I have just read in order to vaugely grasp where the story was going. The authour seemed to jump from one thought to the next, I believe, ultimately to paint a picture for the reader, but in doing so just caused confusion. More than half-way through the book did I realize that the narrator of the book was not the main character, but instead her niece. I consider myself to be well read and capable of unravelling a story as it comes, but I found that this one caused more headache than it was worth. I am surprised that I actually did finish reading the entire book, as many times I considered putting it down and walking away from it. If you are looking for a story which flows and paints clear pictures, this book is not the one to choose.
Hay does a masterful job weaving the various strands of three generations of the Flood family as it moves across the Canadian landscape through eight decades of history that involves conflict, tragedy, mystery and love. The main focus here is the story of Connie Flood, a school teacher on the prairies during the late twenties. She is portrayed as a person very much in touch with her surroundings whether it be her immediate family, or students, or the natural world. She is, as Thomas Hardy once said, someone who noticed such things. One day, her life will be changed forever in the most sinister of ways. The principal of her school, the strange and dangerous Parley Burns, is alleged to have raped one of her young students, setting in motion an evolving mystery that will resonate for generations to come. This time, it will be many miles to the east in the Ottawa Valley where the disgraced Burns will resurface around the same time a young girl is brutally raped and murdered. There is a throughput to this story that will happen because Connie's niece, a historian, does the research and brings the tale into the present where the record will speak for itself. Justice will ultimately be served, old memories recovered, love pursued and honored, and fears finally put to rest. What I like most about this novel is that, once again, Hay shows her unique ability to write both in the poetic and prosaic style. Her lyrical description of the faraway back roads and dark woods of rural Canada serves as a poignant reminder that nature and its accompanying landscape holds in their grip the truth of the past that only humans can extract as they revisit them. I recommend this novel to anyone who has the patience to stick with the journey the author wants to take them on to get at the truth even if it means following the twists and turns of its main characters.
on October 3, 2012
It's not all that often anymore that I want, more than anything else, to start a review with "I LOVED this book!" or my other stock response, "Holy CRAP, this man/woman can write!" Well, consider both responses rendered for Elizabeth Hay's ALONE IN THE CLASSROOM. Because this is simply an outstandingly beautiful and profoundly satisfying book.
A multi-generational story spanning most of the twentieth century, Hay's story of the Flood and Soper families contains none of the tedium or stock sensationalism that often characterizes so many of the so-called 'sweeping family sagas' that I usually run screaming from, but women seem to love - think Danielle Steele or Belva Plain, for example. Nope. Hay's people are real, believable, utterly human. The narrator is Anne Flood, but the heroine, at least for the first half or more of the book is her aunt, Connie Flood, a strong and independent character who Anne has admired her whole life. And there is a 'villain' in Ian 'Parley' Burns, who is certainly evil, but also tortured, thwarted and pathetic. There are strong admirable male characters too, in Sid Goodwin and Michael Graves. But they too have their all-too-human flaws, as does the narrator Anne.
The story turns on a couple of violent crimes, separated by many years, and Parley Burns figures into both. Both Connie and Anne are intricately caught up in the histories of Burns and, later, the attractive and artistically talented dyslexic, Michael Graves. Connie, a schoolteacher turned journalist, and Anne, a schoolteacher and writer, form a strange triagle with Michael, a plot which forms the heart of the novel. But this is also a story about personal histories and confusing and tragic family relationships, particularly the ones between mothers and daughters. Here's a sample -
"Connie indulged Michael the way mothers indulge their sons, so I've come to believe. The mothers can't help it. And the reverse is true. Daughters quicken a mother's critical faculties. None of this is deliberate or thought out - it's on the level of the physical. And so sons bask. And daughters fume. And women brood. And men move on. And yet they don't move on either."
Hay is also expert in evoking a feeling one can remember from childhood, like this one about the importance of the Sunday funnies -
"Newspapers of old smelled damp, inky, pungent. We would lie on the floor when we were kids, our noses inches above the paper, and devour the comic strips that were so glamorous in those days, the women and the men bewitching, all chiselled cheekbones and thick hair, full lips and swelling breasts. The damp wonder of sex and romance, and the excitement of the world out there awaiting us - it was all transmitted directly into our noses through newsprint and ink."
YES, Elizabeth! I remember it too - sprawled on our living room floor checking out the latest installments of "Li'l Abner", "Rex Morgan, M.D.", "Terry and the Pirates", "Steve Canyon", and so many other now nearly forgotten comic strips.
I dont' want to sound sexist, but ALONE IN THE CLASSROOM is a book only a woman could have written. Men, I think, simply lack the sensibility needed to write this way. The erotic tensions and undercurrents of fear and sexual vulnerability are almost palpable, yet as delicately nuanced as a Japanese watercolor. This is simply fine writing. I tried, nearly in vain, to think of anything else I've read that might compare to this book. The only one I could think of was, coincidentally, another Canadian novel, Anne-Marie MacDonald's THE WAY THE CROW FLIES, an enormous tome I enjoyed tremendously some years back.
So yeah. Holy crap, even. I loved this book. My advice? READ it!
- Tim Bazzett, author of American memoir, BOOKLOVER
on August 5, 2014
Came back to this author having read Late Nights a few years ago-
her writing insinuates into one's psyche and pervades
over the years.
As others have noted - the changes of voice in the story telling
is confusing and frustrates the reader.
Unlike Late Nights , the story didn't really pick up steam until about half way into the book.
The overall sentiment of the book reminds me of The Remains of the Day but with cryptic bits of
humor. Her insights into the human soul shimmer ,reflect and focus with beautiful
Such a serendipitous coincidence that there was a reference to PG Wodehouse at the very end of this book -his anthology happened to be lying on the bed
next to me which I ordered at the same time from Amazon.
on November 15, 2011
Elizabeth Hay's Alone in the Classroom starts a bit slow. It's like one of those foreign movies where you don't know what's happening for the first 20 minutes and then it goes on to win several Sundance Film awards.
The story focuses on an old schoolhouse where a woman named Connie is teaching in 1929. The principal is a creepy, shady fellow who has a thing for Connie and possibly an ill-fated (and underaged) student named Susan Graves. But after Susan's mysterious death, the story centres on her dyslexic brother, Michael. All of this is told through the lens of Anne ' Connie's niece. She re-traces her aunt's story through a town in the Ottawa Valley named Argyle.
The imagery of the Canadian countryside is beautifully described in the novel but there's always something a little sinister about it. The novel begins talking about children picking chokecherries (what a terribly named fruit). Alone in the Classroom is beautifully nuanced with a number of memorable characters.
Just when you least expect it, Hay makes you fall in love with the vast Canadian landscape and the charming cast of characters. And just like that, she shows you the harsh climate and magnifies the flaws of the characters ' until she makes you love them again.
While slow at times, Alone in the Classroom is beautifully written. I was happy to be putty in the hands of Hay.