Review: Elizabeth Hay – Alone in the Classroom

Alone in the Classroom is a beautifully written book by Canadian author Elizabeth Hay. Although it isn’t a traditional crime novel, it does feature the death of two young girls and the attempt by a small community to come to terms with an act of violence. It’s a book that shows that descriptions of excessive violence are unnecessary when a writer has the talent to invoke fear and loss through the quality of their prose. I found it a very moving read.

In 1929, Connie Flood is a teacher in a small village school and has an instinctive rapport with her students. One in particular, Michael Graves she helps overcome his difficulties in reading and writing. Head at the school is the disturbing Parley Burns, a frustrated actor whose attachment to certain young female students provokes suspicion. When a violent attack takes place against Michael’s sister, the family’s shame has devastating consequences.

Years later, Connie’s niece Anne learns about the incident at a family gathering and starts to unpick the tale. In doing so she discovers the impact of the prairie upbringing on her own family.

This is a book that is difficult to place into any genre. Although violence and death play a central role in the narrative, the novel isn’t about the investigation into the tragedies. Instead, the first part sets the context of the tragedy with the admirable Connie Flood observing the failings of fellow teachers and the struggles of students.  But we then follow an older Connie though the eyes of her niece. Connie had followed an unusual path and the more conventional Anne can only marvel at her Aunt’s determination to live life as she wants it.

The characterisation is wonderful, especially the minor characters including the repellent Parley Burns and charismatic Michael Graves. But the overwhelming strength of this book is the quality of the writing. Hay evokes a lost time with small observations that conjure up a wealth of images. It’s one of those books that you marvel over individual sentences and the beauty of the prose. With my crime reviewer hat on, I suppose I do feel sad that there isn’t a resolution to some of the acts that are committed or even certainty over the culprit but it is nice to read something completely different. I would highly recommend this book.

I received a copy from the publisher.

17 thoughts on “Review: Elizabeth Hay – Alone in the Classroom

  1. Margot Kinberg

    Sarah – I want very much to read this and even more so after your excellent review. It’s been on my radar for a while and I just hadn’t got to reading it yet. I must do that. This sounds really absorbing and I’m drawn to the school setting as well as what you say about the writing style.


  2. kathy d.

    Oh, gosh, so it’s not a mystery? Not an investigation? But a psychological whydunnit? Not so sure that’s my genre, but your review sounds good. I just don’t want to become too maudlin here reading a mystery.


  3. Jane Mackay

    Thank you for reviewing and Elizabeth Hay book. I think she is the best living writer of English prose today and shamefully neglected here in England. How many libraries carry her books? How many newspapers review them?


    1. Hi Jane. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I completely agree and now of course, I’m going to be searching out other Elizabeth Hay books. She definitely deserves a higher profile here in the UK.


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