One of the joys of working in a book store is the lively discussion that springs up around books!It's like going to a book club every day of our lives around here. So when I heard that Charlene was reading Elizabeth Hay's Alone in the Classroom, new out in paperback this month, it occurred to me that since Dave read it when it was released in hardcover (and we had the author for an event) they might have very different takes on the book! And low! He Read/She Read was born!
New in paperback, Elizabeth Hay's novel Alone in the Classroom is perhaps her finest work to date. Set in Depression era prairie and a more contemporary Ottawa valley, the novel tells the story of two schoolteachers across generations that are united by the mysterious shards around two emotional triangles in different times of their lives.
The mercurial Parley Burns is suspected of abusing a young girl in one timeline and the disappearance of another young girl years later brings the main characters together in the person of Michael Graves, the older brother of one of the girls in question, and of a second teacher and principle narrator, the enigmatic Connie Flood.
At a time when too many novels hit one note very hard and wrap a backstory around it, Hay's emotional nuance and strong characterization throughout her novels are most welcome.
I am a huge Elizabeth Hay fan!
I was swept away on hazy summer days by A Student of Weather, I spent crisp winter nights devouring Late Nights on Air and in the cool evenings of autumn I escaped to the silverscreen lit pages of Garbo Laughs. Which is why I was so delighted one warm spring day when the paperbacks of Alone in the Classroom with their fresh green covers arrived at the store.
From the opening paragraph, my intuition told me that this would be a very different ride from Hay's previous novels. An uncomfortable yet compelling read, I moved through the first one hundred pages in a dream-like state as if walking down a long corridor, opening door after door not quite finding what I was expecting. Then upon opening the last door, discovering an even more tragic scenario than I had imagined.
With character names like Parley Burns, Susan Graves and Connie Flood, Elizabeth Hay weaves tension and mystery into stories past and present as told through the voice of school teacher Connie Flood's niece whose admiration of her aunt blurs the boundary between their personal stories.
Hay intricately describes the settings for her story in the prairies of Saskatchewan and the rugged Ottawa Valley where berry picking is a common practice. This leads me to another character of sorts -- the chokecherry. Yes, this may seem odd but it repeatedly shows up as a witness to human frailty and its very name stuck with me page after page. I've never been a fan of this fruit but I think now I won't be so dismissive when we meet! Themes of loss, self-control and past-lives are balanced with the theme of love lost and found. Hay treats her characters with such tenderness as they fumble in and out of love that I couldn't help being drawn into their world despite its incredible tension.
As the rain clouds move in and the birds sing their song, I highly recommend you read this captivating novel by Elizabeth Hay.