Thursday, March 22, 2012

Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

Release Date
: April 26th 2011
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Random House Canada
Source: Publisher
Buy It: Book Depository
In a small prairie school in 1929, Connie Flood helps a backward student, Michael Graves, learn how to read. Observing them and darkening their lives is the principal, Parley Burns, whose strange behaviour culminates in an attack so disturbing its repercussions continue to the present day. Connie's niece, Anne, tells the story. Impelled by curiosity about her dynamic, adventurous aunt and her more conventional mother, she revisits Connie's past and her mother's broken childhood. In the process she unravels the enigma of Parley Burns and the mysterious, and unrelated, deaths of two young girls.
There's a line in Alone in the Classroom that says "It’s a novel that works better as poetry". The narrator is talking about Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which I haven't read, but they could just as easily be referring to Hay's latest novel. That was my major problem with this book, it was absolutely filled with delicate, beautiful sentences and phrases, but what they added up to didn't fill me with any kind of emotion.

I think the root of my apathy stems from the odd narration style. Alone in the Classroom is written in first person, but the narrator, Anne,  doesn't really show up till midway into the book, and even then I didn't learn much about her. She was a non-entity. Anne was supposed to be the trigger for a passionate and bold turn of events, but even as they unfolded I didn't quite believe them. She told them with the same distance as if she were talking about somebody else. I also felt like the whole murder aspect was an after-thought, and though again, it was filled with lovely images, I didn't really get its point within the story.

It also really bothered me that Anne was able to tell this detailed story, filled with dialogue and richness, when she wasn't even alive when most of it was happening. I really don't feel like she would have known all of that, but unlike, for example The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes where the narrator is intentionally untrustworthy, I kept getting the impression that I was supposed to believe what the narrator was saying. The problem was that I didn't.

I don't want Alone in the Classroom to come across as a horrible book. It's not. There were many passages I had to jot down they were so beautiful. It was filled with perfect moments like:
"Movement always helps. A world of thoughts occurred to her whenever she rode a train, and a lesser world whenever she went for a walk." 
But they were contained within a story that had a lot of trouble keeping my interest. In the end, Alone in the Classroom was a book that was lovely by the sentence, but failed for me, as a story.


  1. That's pretty much how I felt about this book too! Thanks for summing it up so eloquently!

    1. Oh wow, I'm so glad you agreed! A part of me wondered if I just wasn't "smart" enough for this book. Have you read anything else by Hay? I wonder if Late Nights would be better...


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