Alone in the Classroom, by Elizabeth Hay

Review copy courtesy McClelland & Stewart

Anne, the narrator of Elizabeth Hay’s new novel Alone in the Classroom, introduces the reader to her story through a memory of her childhood home in the Ottawa River Valley:

Our house and garden used to belong to a botanist who was fascinated with orphan plants, waifs, like the Kaladar cactus first discovered a two-hour drive west of here in 1934, then lost from view and subsequently rediscovered in 1947, an isolated and vulnerable plant six hundred miles east of its Wisconsin home. The botanist used to sit on the front porch in a white chair and when he went inside he left a sign on the chair saying Open for business. You could bring him any flower or leaf and he would identify it. My study used to be full of plants that he watered in the nude. I am sorry not to have known him, though very probably he was best in small doses, because there are so many things I would like to identify and because the story I’m telling now is another story of discovery and rediscovery, not botanical but personal. Perhaps every family tale falls into this category: 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.

That’s a long quote with which to introduce a review, but I am sure it will come as no surprise to readers familiar with the author’s previous novels — it is a good example of both the distinctive prose and story styles for those who don’t know Hay. She is always careful to supply extensive detail on the physical surroundings of her story. Her major characters usually have a somewhat disjointed past — while they have extensive, comprehensive memories of it, the past always seems to include “something the parent has neglected to tell”. Supporting characters tend to be like the botanist; very good at something obscure, but rather out of touch with the world that most experience as “normal”. Discovery and rediscovery (it is important to include both) are the drivers of the present tense of her books.

Hay is also very conscious of how changing mores and practices affect that process. Here’s another example from the chapter that introduces Anne and the Ottawa valley where she was born and raised:

This part of the world is where I live now. At least in a general way. It contains the stream in which my grandmother washed herself in dumb panic upon finding a large red stain in her underwear — a motherless child raised by a Scottish grandmother who told her nothing. She passed on the favour, telling my mother nothing, even though they shared the same bed, and my mother passed this abashed ignorance on to me, asking me after the fact if I knew what to expect. It’s hard to credit in this age of palaver that people used to say so little about sex. Until it exploded in their faces, that is, at which point newspapers told all.

This novel includes two such “explosions”, both involving Anne’s aunt Connie whose path the narrator is retracing in the present tense of the book. The first took place in Jewel, a town in south-west Saskatchewan, in 1929 where a teen-aged Connie has got a teaching job in a primary school after only three months of training at what were then called “normal” schools. It is here that she first runs into the disturbing presence of Ian “Parley” Burns, the principal of the school. That nickname comes from both his ability in the French language and his devotion to all things French.

The Saskatchewan event involves an incident with an attractive adolescent girl to whom Parley has paid much attention, a disastrous response from her father and, eventually, a fatal fire.

Connie has questions about Parley’s involvement in all of this, questions that return to her eight years later when she is a reporter for the Ottawa Journal (she was never cut out to be a teacher) and is in the Ottawa River Valley town for the funeral of a thirteen-year-old girl who had been murdered while out picking chokecherries. She recognizes Parley at the funeral — he is now principal of the high school there.

That supplies you with an outline of the narrative action that will motivate Connie’s voyage of discovery and rediscovery, a voyage that Anne will repeat decades later. It is important for the reader to realize, however, that this is simply a dramatic framework for the real meat of Hay’s story — the conflict between generations in families, the need to search for what parents have “neglected” to tell their children and the reasons why they made that choice.

Elizabeth Hay’s Giller-prize winning novel, Late Nights on Air, featured many similiar elements and it is only fair to note that novel was not to everyone’s taste. As those longish opening quotes of this review indicate, there is a sedateness and intricacy to the presentation of the story that can go beyond distraction to frustrating opaqueness. I liked Late Nights on Air but I am afraid I found those tendencies to be much more of a problem with this novel. The abuse and murder of an adolescent girl is a not-infrequent device for a novel, as is the generational search for missing pieces — for this reader, it takes more than extended passages of description to carry that kind of story.

My qualification would be that this is very much a novel of “mother and daughters” (and aunts) involving three generations. While fathers and sons play a role in the supporting cast, they are missing from the families of the central characters. That is meant as a backward way of saying female readers might find a lot more to identify with in this novel than this reader did. Hay is a fine writer and I am comfortable with her prose (I liked her story collection Small Change (1997) and debut novel A Student of Weather (2000) even better than her prize-winner) but it wasn’t enough to make this novel a favorite.

(Note for Calgary visitors here: Calgary’s authors festival, WordFest, is featuring an event with both Hay and Miriam Toews, author of the recently-released Irma Voth on Tuesday, May 3 — details are here. Both novels involve family stories about “discovery and rediscovery” provoked by disturbing events and the two authors should have some interesting insights.)

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10 Responses to “Alone in the Classroom, by Elizabeth Hay”

  1. Tom C Says:

    This sounds like an exquisitely written books. I particularly enjoy books where the author has had to become knowledgeable about a niche area such as botany. I quite enjoy trans-generational novels, and the all female cast of family members is not a disincentive to read it.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: She actually doesn’t do much botany beyond the passage I quoted, but your assumption is right — different portions of the book do involve some detailed investigations of that kind of thing, however.

  3. Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland Says:

    [...] Mary Lawson’s two novels and have several others on my to read list. Today, while reading Kevin From Canada, I found myself totally immersed in the opening paragraph of Elizabeth Hay’s newly published [...]

  4. David Dean Says:

    I’ve just turned the last page of this book having loved every minute of it. This was my first experience of reading Elizabeth Hay and it certainly won’t be my last – I have copies of both “Late Nights on Air” and “A Student of Weather” which I’m now eager to read, though perhaps not quite yet if, as you say, the themes of her novels tend to be similar.

    I particularly enjoyed the focus on family histories and the bits one generation neglects to tell the next – my life has always been full of the stories my mother relates of her own youth and ones passed on from my grandmother and back to my great-great-grandmother, to such an extent that it sometimes feel like a parallel existence that I can step into. And yet a few years ago when I started researching my family tree, the bare facts thrown up by census information and wartime service records etc. cast a whole new light onto some of those stories, and brought the accuracy of others into question (my great-great-grandfather is missing from so many of the stories my Gran told about her own childhood that you would have been forgiven for thinking it was a household of only females, and yet he was clearly there, which makes me wonder how he felt about certain things and what his influence on certain situations might have been) – lots of those pieces of the puzzle that previous generations “neglected” to pass on that Hay writes about in this novel.

    I also found myself enjoying the coincidences: like the number of familiar people Connie sees on the train, or her just happening to bump into Michael in the rain in the woods, or a minor character who pops up in the last few pages to throw into question earlier events – when the first of these coincidences happened I did rather think “Eh? How likely is that?” and then remembered that coincidence is one of the things Thomas Hardy is known for and since both “Tess” and “Jude” are mentioned extensively in the novel (and Parley remembers seeing an aged Hardy in the audience at a theatre) I then assumed it was an intentional reference (likewise the number of tragedies that occur) and enjoyed it for that. Melville’s “Moby Dick” got referenced two or three times too, though I’ve never read that so I don’t know if I missed anything relating to it.

    I did find myself wondering how much Anne was simply transcribing what Connie had told her of her life in the 1920s, 30s and 40s (or if “Connie” was constructed from things Connie herself, Anne’s parents and Michael had told her) and how much she was imagining/projecting what Connie might have thought or felt, especially with regard to her relationship with Michael.

    I was interested to read that Hay based parts of the novel on her own mother’s memories and stories, and that “Parley” actually existed. Anyway, yes, I really enjoyed “Alone in the Classroom” – definitely worth the postage from Canada!

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: Thank you for the excellent comment — I think you have captured much of what Hay tried to achieve in this novel. I do suspect that your personal history made the book more accessible so thank you for sharing that as well. I don’t think you will be disappointed when you do get to Hay’s other novels.

  6. Desi Valentine Says:

    I just finished this book a few minutes ago. The writing was gloriously detailed, the characters rich and thought-provoking. But I was not at all satisfied by the conclusion. I mean, who killed Ethel? What really happened with Susan Graves? Is this all revealed in some layer of gentle connection or quiet metaphor? I’m recovering from the flu, as I write this: Was I just too fever-addled to figure it out? Or is the absence of satisfying conclusion Hay’s overriding message? Please, help me out, here.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Desi: I certainly have my thoughts, but I do think that Hay left some ambivalence and I don’t want to spoil that. I think there were some powerful forces that Hay wanted to explore (e.g.the mother-aunt-daughter phenomenon) and she used the two suspicious deaths to create a framework for that. I have found that Hay has done this in her previous novels and gave a couple of them a second read — if you have the time, you might find that useful with this one.

  8. Desi Valentine Says:

    Thank you, Kevin. I will absolutely read the book again, both to pick up what I missed and to relive her imagery.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Desi: Please check back in when you do. My personal experience with Hay is that she has a way of laying down an obvious story line — but then applies her real talent to themes that aren’t immediately obvious. A second read, when I pay less attention to the obvious and more to the sublime, often produces a different impression of her work.

    It is one of the reasons why I found her short story collection, Small Change, more immediately accessible than her novels. If you haven’t read it, track it down — it is an excellent collection.

  10. DesiValentine Says:

    Will do :)

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