Alone In The Classroom by Elizabeth Hay
|Alone In The Classroom by Elizabeth Hay
|Category: Literary Fiction
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason
|Summary: Murder, sexual assault, fires and train crashes, are all dealt with in Hay's usual understated way. It's a story of families and love laced through with darkness and constrained passion.
|Date: August 2012
|Publisher: MacLehose Press
|External links: Author's website
Other children were out picking that morning, but she passed them by in her light-blue dress and sandals... she had an empty kettle in each hand and was alone, despite having three sisters.
Coming back to Hay's writing is like a kind of homecoming. She has such a soft way of words: a gentleness that gathers you up like a story-time school teacher asking if you're sitting comfortably.
So, we meet Ethel who is not ordinary, having been conceived in India but now living with her family of bright solitaries, studious, quiet in a small town in the Ottawa Valley. We learn about chokecherries, and jam making, and what it was like to be a free-living child, barefoot and peeling-nosed, in the summer of 1937, when one small branch of a leaning maple showed the first touch of red but it's early August still and the jewelweed was in blossom, tomatoes were ripening, the morning became increasingly hot...school was in the air. Every child felt it. She was aware of precious time running out.
Time ran out for Ethel that same day. She was attacked and murdered.
But time running out, the sense of our lives passing us by, and that need in some of us not to let it do so, is the theme of the book. It's about a right, perhaps even a duty, to live your own life your own way, accepting that everything has a price.
For all the finding of a dead girl in the first couple of pages, this isn't Ethel's story, nor the story of Johnny Coyle, the young lad arrested for her murder and sentenced to hang.
It is written as Anne Flood's search for her place in the world, a delving into the past as a way to root herself in the present. To find out who she is, so that she might become who she will be. But it's not really her story either.
If it's anyone's story, it's Connie's. She is Anne Flood's aunt and the source of much of what she knows. As aunts go, Connie is much loved and much admired... but then she and Anne have an affinity for the same things, the same people.
Some people say that traits skip a generation. I think maybe it's just that they don't necessarily show clearly in the blood line, especially when they transpose genders. I'm much more like my father's sister, than I am my mother. My father's sister was, I suspect, a lot like Connie.
We meet Connie at the funeral of the murdered girl; she is the local reporter.
There she also meets someone she once knew. A teacher, Ian A Burns, known to all as Parley Burns for his love of and constant reference to the French language. An Englishman who wished he was French. She had taught alongside him for a while, back in 1929 when she was 18 and struggling to teach. It is also his story.
That September when Parley Burns arrived as school principal was when she also met Michael, 14 years old, a grade behind and struggling to read... but oh so intelligent and with a way about him and a grasp of the natural world. It isn't Michael's story, he just lurks around the edges and skips across the path of it often enough to derail the pattern.
I wrote of one of Hay's earlier novels that it was part love-story, part elegy. This is very much the same. A different time, very different characters but still that solid poetic grasp of places and people. I struggle to grasp what makes her writing so perfect. It isn't lyric exactly, and yet there is a rhythm to it. You can hear the words being spoken. Part monologue, part memoir. A lot happens in a lifetime, especially in the lifetime of a roving reporter come school teacher. Bad things happen in classrooms. A child dies horrifically in flames. Another is murdered. A third sentenced to death. A war comes. Marriage. Separation. A train crash. A life is lived crossing continents.
Yet there is no drama in any of this. I was just opening my book and then there was carnage.
It's as though she is telling us that it isn't the dramas in our lives that ultimately matter. It's the small everyday things. The beautiful things that we should look at more closely: rocks, lichen, snakes and butterflies. The irredeemable decisions we shouldn't be afraid to make.
We should be wary of judging people, she seems to say, for we may judge them wrongly. But judge them we will and there will be consequences.
Above all, though, we shouldn't be afraid to love and to love where it catches us, rightly or wrongly. Her characters are strong in their love for one another, loves that are truly free, with no seeking to own or control or capture. Loves that sometimes have to be let go of. Loves that are not free of jealousy and heartbreak, but that simply endure it.
It is a lovely book.
That's its strength and (for some) its failure. Alone has had mixed reviews. Some adoring the strength of writing, others critical that Anne presumes to know too much, yet dismayed that we don't get to the ultimate factual truth about the shocking events that echo down the years. But Michael points out the nature of memory is such that its truth does tend to blur the facts.
You can read more book reviews or buy Alone In The Classroom by Elizabeth Hay at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy Alone In The Classroom by Elizabeth Hay at Amazon.com.
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