Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

Sometimes the characters a writer pursues take on a seeming life of their own, wresting control of a tale from the hand that holds the pen. In Alone in the Classroom, the narrator, Anne, sets out to write about her mother but gets diverted into the lives of her father’s older sister, Connie, an unsettling sexual predator named Parley, a traumatized dyslexic boy named Michael, and the disturbing events that tie them together over the course of more than sixty years. Anne’s mother still appears but she has become a minor character, and ultimately what sets out as biography reveals itself as autobiography. Or maybe that is always the case in some respect. And, if so, does it have its analog in fiction? Has Elizabeth Hay, herself, suffered the same befuddling as her narrator? Certainly the results here appear jumbled, moving forward (or back) in fits and starts. What appears to be the centre of the story collapses or suddenly shifts out of sight. As the details begin to emerge, connections between characters become clearer but their significance is obscured. And what you are left with is the muddled mess of lives lived. Only a writer with the expressive power and observational talent of a fine poet could turn such a muddle into a compelling narrative. A writer like Elizabeth Hay.

The story turns on the relationship between Connie, who is 18 in her first teaching post in a small town in Saskatchewan, her sadistic and frighteningly self-absorbed school principal, Parley, and the severely dyslexic (at the time dyslexia is not a recognized condition) student, Michael, who is, in Connie’s eyes, clearly intelligent and sensitive. Both in this initial encounter and when Connie crosses paths with Parley again eight years later, Connie’s strength and Parley’s weakness are revealed. But the tripartite construction continues to re-emerge again and again, in different forms and often with different participants. What does it all mean? For Anne, the narrator imposing narrative order on disordered lives, its significance is rich. But Anne’s need for order is just a further hue for Hay’s palette, so the meaning for the reader remains open.

Writing that so faithfully brings its characters to life, escaping the simplifying tendency of art will, I think, naturally be at times confusing. At least I was confused at times. Certainly this writing forces the reader to slow down, to work things out, to make connections, even to reread sections. (I wanted to reread the book from the start numerous times as I went along, realizing that I had missed vital aspects on my first pass.) It’s like the difference between reading a longhand letter from a dear friend and a scrabbled email; the former gives you pause, gladly. Elizabeth Hay’s writing gives me pause. Highly recommended.

Posted in books, review.