Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay
By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Author: Elizabeth Hay
Format: Trade Paperback, 304 pages
Publisher: Emblem, imprint of McClelland & Stewart
Pub Date: April 10, 2012
Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay is a rich saga that carefully details four generations of people and families intermingled through relationship within a small prairie community in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Elizabeth Hay is not merely a storyteller, but a history weaver—a gifted chronicler of sorts who makes you feels as if you’re taking the journey of memory along with her and her characters—not because it’s a laborious task, but because her writing is as intricate and intimate enough to mimic and recreate time as if you’re engrossed right into the narrative alongside her characters.
The story, or rather, stories focus on the histories of Connie Flood, a young and beloved schoolteacher; the principal, Mr. Parley Burns, and the struggling student, Michael Graves, and Connie Flood’s niece, Annie. Together they form an intricate lattice of pregnant desire, insecurity, and secrets.
And though the backdrop of the book is school as the title implies with Alone in the Classroom, those who will be best “educated” are the readers of this book, themselves.
Your judgements of characters will be made to shift and dislodge right from under you. As you read, you will be led to believe one way or another about a character and then in time doubt yourself in your conclusions, realizing that conclusions themselves are never fully one-sided.
And Hay, will in her deft expertise show you that you can never fully understand the entirety of a character or a person—even in a lifetime—or over four generations.
Her prose is fiercely tender as it is severely honest, which is what won me over. Alone in the Classroom is far better than fiction—it’s poetry written in prose. But, Hay isn’t lyrical in order to resound the cling and clang of a fluttering school office bell or to reverberate a noticeable, deafening gong!
The story isn’t complex plot-wise though you will have to be an attentive reader. It is instead, a rich telling over a span of generations that depict how love is not necessarily singular or meant for one person only, but thick with complexity—multi-layered, and ever-evolving over time.
The characters are as deeply flawed as they are deeply rich and sensitive and ever-changing depending on the memory that upholds them. Since memory, too, is a special theme in the book and will shift and lay its kind or unkind judgement on each character depending on its bearer. This, too, is subjective and based on relationship, another insight shed by Hay to her readers.
Elizabeth Hay’s writing is exquisite and expertly crafted filled with nuggets of wisdom and truth that will exhilarate you while pain you at the same time at their discovery. These truths are only further enriched by Hay’s delicate weave of connection between her characters over a span of generations.
She holds the string of her narrative, which is like a glistening line of web and allows it to sway and then pulls it taut—only to allow it to sway again. You will be shocked at the story’s fragility and also its enduring strength and tenacity—both similar in the fragility and strength of the web and its stylistic narrative. These, too, are the traits of Hay’s writing power.
Her lyrical style lulls you into a lucid and pure believability, empathy, and even grief for her characters because they are more than caricatures in a well-thought-out book. Together, they become a deeper revelation of the inevitability of each pensive afterthought as a tender recollection that feels like an opera of shock and nostalgia and grandeur of loss, carrying with it the weight and significance of a small death or deep rapture of love.
It’s a passionate book and will be read as such. Alone in the Classroom is an engrossing tale of love and memory as echoes of who we are and what we become through whom we desire. It’s a beautifully written novel that has certainly earned its acclaim as a Globe and Mail Best Book. As its reader, I highly anticipate this award will be the first of many.
Congratulations to Emblem, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart and to Elizabeth Hay, the Scotiabank Giller-Prize winning author of Late Nights on Air. In my humble opinion, Alone in the Classroom, surely surpasses it.
A special thank you to McClelland & Stewart for providing me with a media copy in return for an unpaid and honest review.