ALONE IN THE CLASSROOM
By Elizabeth Hay
McClelland & Stewart
320 pages, $29.95
Review By Rachel Krueger
The blurb-o-matics must be killing themselves over this. Alone in the Classroom has NO PLOT. Or it has many plots. A surfeit of plots.
Thank god it also has ssssssecrets. (And is weirdly amazing.)
It begins with the death of a little girl but that is the last minute you will know what the point is. From there the narrative threads become hopelessly, fascinatingly tangled. The little girl, she dead. And you probably think this novel’s about her (don’t you) but then Connie Flood, Random Journalist sent to cover the trial of her alleged murderer, runs into Parley Burns, Deeply Unsettling Man From Her Past.
And so now it is the past, and Connie Flood, Fresh Upstart Teacher, is trying to teachify Michael, Young Boy Resistant to Teachifying. Meanwhile, our friendly neighborhood narrator is all “Given what Parley Burns did and what happened to him in the end,” the sort of ominous foreshadowing to which I am extremely partial. And you, dear reader, have a very loose and slippery conviction you know where this foreboding is coming from.
And Hay makes you stir your brain pot to keep the connections straight. Like, it is still the past and the narrator is like: Connie Flood is talking to Parley Burns’ wife while a girl of 17 listens in. That girl has curly hair. Her mother is this person I referred to earlier named Anne, whom you may recall but possibly not because it is only page 13 and I have already referred to an insupportable number of characters. I was named after Anne, my grandmother. This will be important later.
It is like MATH. And I wanted to be angry at all this deliberate obfuscation, but it was so intricate and balanced and Heavy With Meaning that I couldn’t help tugging on the plot-strings to see if any would loosen up. Sometimes Hay’s love of muddling gets away from her. Non-characters, characters serving only to flesh out other minor characters (who are in themselves merely plot-flesh), crop up to confuse the issue of who is actually Doing Shit in this book and who is merely providing the local color against which Shit Is Done. But the end ultimately justifies the means.
Because the rubbernecky interest of a murdered child (and another, later Terrible Thing), and the focus on Connie and creepy Parley are misdirections. In the interstices, this book is about family connections that are all, if not profoundly unhealthy, at least a little fucked. You CANNOT sleep with your favorite aunt’s old boyfriend, no matter how much said boyfriend gets around, without disturbing some serious shit. But it is those relationships that make this book weirdly compelling, that justify the looping chronology and mass of relevant characters, and that keep the whole thing on the outskirts of Tawdryville and Salacioustown.
They are also what make this book hella hard to pin down. It is both a meandering plot hole and a pleasure to read, for the usual reviewy buzzwords like “characterization” and “poignancy” and “Seriously, having a relationship with your aunt’s ex is pretty messed. I don’t care how rugged he is.”
Rachel Krueger also blogs on books at booksidoneread.com