Top positive review
28 people found this helpful
on June 10, 2011
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]