272 pp, hardback, £18.99
Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner
‘Death and sex. They smash through the walls and sit like tanks in the living room.’ Canadian novelist Elizabeth Hay has a talent for aperçus and this one, lifted from her unusual fourth novel, neatly identifies several of the book’s binding agents, in an oblique story of multi-generational family life streaked with brief moments of terror and haunted by one unforgettably repellent character.
Hazy and circular, this is a novel that defies easy encapsulation. The deaths include a murder; death by fire; a war; and a train crash. The sex includes an assault, possibly two, on female children; the decades-long passion between a pair of individuals who cannot live together; and the dissatisfaction of marital mismatch. Although a contemporary narrator named Anne spins the tale (and represents more of the walls and living room) it’s her aunt, schoolteacher Connie Flood who dominates the book and connects many of its threads.
Connie is a modern woman and role model, a teacher in the 1920s, then a newspaper reporter, a figure of courage, choice and resolution. Her early years in the classroom in rural Saskatchewan are the means by which Hay conveys her message about the formative power of that crucial phase of childhood. It’s in the classroom in Jewel, Saskatchewan that Connie meets Susan and Michael Graves, the children of a local store keeper. Susan will fall under the spell of a malign, tortured teacher, Parley Burns. And Michael, dyslexic before the term was understood, will grow up to be the love of Connie’s life.
The characters of Michael and Burns in particular underline Hay’s intensifying gift for complex, credible portraiture. Michael’s misunderstood intelligence combined with his simple, pure charm are forged, in adulthood, into a loner with magnetic allure. Burns is something else entirely. Sly, intellectually unforgiving, sexually predatory, he is a powerful, sinister figure stained both by sadism and tragedy.
Burns arrives to teach at Jewel, overqualified but obviously flawed. His influence will be destructive in countless ways. But he recurs in Connie’s life on other credulity-stretching occasions. We know he committed one unforgiveable act, but was he implicated in a second? Hay’s choice in this novel is to leave question marks hanging; to revisit the more melodramatic aspects of her story over time, slotting some discoveries into place, but leaving some mysteries – such as the identity of a child’s murderer – undisclosed.
In between, it’s Anne’s tale to tell, this one less extremely shaded by events. Anne is intrigued by her family’s history, her matrilineal line, her naming. Her admiration for Connie is boundless, yet despite it, she falls for Michael in turn, unable or unwilling to heed her aunt’s thoughtful advice.
Anne’s role in the book resembles connective tissue. Her narrative holds more conventional mysteries and her contributions to the story are more baggy, less luminous. Not for the first time, Hay seems to have problems ending her novel before it runs out of steam. Nevertheless, this is a writer whose work deserves to be more widely appreciated outside Canada where she has won major signs of recognition including the Giller Prize. Wise and able, and deliciously comic too in the earlier Garbo Laughs, she’s another cherishable novelist from a country with a preponderance of such talent. Alone in the Classroom is one to savour.