Thursday, April 12, 2012

Alone in the Classroom

I recently realized that, although I've read a lot of books, I rarely get the chance to read multiple books by the same author. It's kind of weird, actually, because I distinctly remember choosing books specifically because of their author when I was a kid: Janet Lunn, L.M. Montgomery, Jean Little – all authors whose catalogue I plowed through with delight. I'm not sure when that stopped. I might be just that I'm reading more contemporary authors now, so there's less of a back-catalogue to devour, or, perhaps, that I find myself increasingly drawn to first novels. Whatever the case, when I was reading Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay I was struck by the fact that it's the third book of hers I've read, and that it's felt like a while since that was the case, and that being familiar with an author changes the way you read his or her work.

The last Hay novel I read was her Giller-winning Late Nights on Air (the first was A Student of Weather), which also gave me the opportunity to interview her for the Journal (the Queen's student newspaper, which I was very involved with as an undergrad). Hay has a lovely voice – simultaneously soft and strong – a fact I would never have remembered except that when I began reading Alone in the Classroom it took up residence in my head. It wasn't quite as if Hay was reading the novel to me (I didn't talk to her long enough for that to happen), but every once in a while, a bit of description would so remind me of Late Nights on Air, or the way she talked about writing, that there it was. Anyway, none of that really says anything about the novel, I suppose, but perhaps it's part of why I responded so well to it.

Alone in the Classroom is one of those layered narratives I like so much, although the layering isn't done with different voices, but rather with different time periods. The novel opens with a scene in rural Ontario, in 1937. It begins as a normal end-of-summer day – a little girl heading out alone to pick chokecherries for jam – and ends in the tragedy of her murder. It's a dark and rather shocking opening, that is revealed to be a bit of research being done by the novel's narrator, Anne Flood. Anne is researching her mother's life, and the death of Ethel Weir in 1937 happened in her mother's home town, when her mother was a teenager. It's a pivotal event for other reasons, too, the main one being that the murder brought Anne's Aunt Connie, then a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen, to town. Connie met her future sister-in-law while doing research in the local library.

It's strange the way that curiosity about one family member's life can take us deeply into the life of someone else in love, and in that way Anne veers toward her beloved and idolized Aunt Connie, telling the story about her early life as a teacher in Jewel, Saskatchewan, and the tragic death of another little girl there. 

It sounds, from that description, that this novel should be bleak, or dark, or a kind of sleuth/cold case sort of story, but it isn't. Rather, it's am investigation of another kind, into family and self and what brought everyone to where they are now. Connie's life was forever changed by Jewel – both what happened to the little girl, and the relationships, good and bad, that developed between Connie and the girl's older brother Michael, and between herself and the school's principal Parley Burns. Both Parley and Michael, and especially Michael, reappeared in Connie's life after she moved to Ottawa, and then by extension became part of Anne's life as well.

Alone in the Classroom is kind of a shapeshifting novel, and just as you begin to think the story is about Connie it switches and becomes very much about Anne, who turns the narrative spotlight back onto herself after clearly and beautifully laying out the life of her aunt and their relationship just in time for us to watch it shrivel back a little as Anne oversteps herself to have an affair with Connie's great love. It is devastating and lovely and irresistible, seeming to be both a genuine attraction and an effort by Anne to grow closer to her aunt and understand her better. Family is a tricky thing, and sometimes there is a line between how much is good to know about our relatives and how much is too much, at least while they're alive. Hay captures this troubling line as if it were string and, seemingly without effort pulls it taught and lets her characters play out the consequences. The result is a moving, vivid history of a family both present and past, captured with the graceful and painterly description and dialogue I have come to look forward to from Hay.

Alone in the Classroom
by Elizabeth Hay
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from Emblem edition)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Real Time Web Analytics
Powered By Ringsurf