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May 1, 2011

Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

I found myself paying attention to sentences in Elizabeth Hay’s latest novel Alone in the Classroom. To the ones that, for me, sparkled with resonance, finally articulating thoughts so often muddled in my brain. Complex ideas, like the assurance of  “a glimpse of a past as promising as my own future seemed to be”, or “When words avoid you, or continually cross you, you have no escape from yourself.” A description of a schoolteacher, such a perfect image: “She scratched her head with the point of a pencil so frequently that you could see scribbles all over her scalp.”

I paid attention to the way her sentences were either staccato short, or long, long, long, the clauses only near-linked by a comma. And by how the narrative took on the same pattern, not progressive, but rather an assemblage of ideas, of stories. How these stories circle around their centre, though it’s not clear what the centre is for some time.

But the circling is not aimless. Just enough is held back that you’d never accuse this book of being plotless, and the plots involve a schoolgirl murdered near Ottawa during the 1940s, another one who had died in a fire in Saskatchewan years before, the creepy teacher linked to them both, the teacher-turned-reporter who brings these stories together, and tells them to her niece who is the novel’s narrator. Connections abound here: former residents in the prairie town re-encounter one another in the Ottawa Valley, on the same train years later, relationships are incestuous, patterns are repeated: “It’s possible that a hidden symmetry is often at work as we stumble our way through life.”

I adored Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air a few years ago, and was so pleased to find that this follow-up met all of my expectations. It’s a similar book, circular in shape, concerned with the past and with memory, full of moments where characters find that “[w]hat I had known about collided with what I had never been told”, and these collisions can shocking and powerful. Like Late Nights…, I imagine that this won’t be a book to everyone’s taste. Critics will delight in pinpointing what is wrong with it, lacking the understanding and imagination to see what is so right.

It’s an unsettling book, whose story goes where you don’t think it will, and doesn’t answer all its questions. Whose clauses, sentences, ideas and stories are strung together, one after another like random beads on a string, and it’s hard to find the pattern, that hidden symmetry, when you regard each bead individually. The key is to take in the whole, of course, the string of beads itself, its cumulative effect. In nature, there is no such thing as a straight line, and neither is there in a good story.

3 thoughts on “Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay”

  1. Aidan says:

    I am so pleased Hay has a new novel, and to hear your good opinion of it. I loved Garbo Laughs so intensely, the imagery, the interplay between characters, the language, that I bought and saved Late Nights on Air. I was unwilling to read it yet, because if it is as good as I had hoped, once I was done there would be no more Hay to read, no other novel waiting for me. So now I can finally read Late Nights, and save this new one. I just like to have a sure thing in my back pocket, for when I might really need a good read. That’s just the kind of weirdo reader I am!

  2. I’m looking forward to reading this! Thanks for the review.

  3. Christine says:

    I can’t believe someone else was thrown off balance by her sentences, too. I keep stopping to write down my favourites and post them on my bulletin board. Today’s best: “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, and it’s marvellous for the stone and marvellous for the teacher.” and “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.” Curdled is such a perfect metaphor for Parley Burns. He was something good but he’s gone bad. Hay’s ability to just touch on the discomfort of being in the presence of a truly bad person — who isn’t categorized as such by others — is amazing. I am only midway through the book but find every time Parley shows up I am uncomfortable.

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