For many, the title of Elizabeth Hay’s new novel will resurrect unpleasant memories. Who among us did not suffer cruel teasing, bullying, or punishment in the classroom for sins such as failing to master math, being fat, or simply wearing the wrong clothes? We carry those scars with us into adulthood. Some of us learn to hide the youthful injuries to our psyches, while others remain overwhelmed.
“You don’t get over it, failure in elementary school,” says Michael, who felt ever so alone in the classroom as a result of his dyslexia, which rendered him unable to spell. “Other sorrows you might get over, but not them.” Michael is just one of the meticulously drawn, immensely complex characters who populate Hay’s first novel since 2007’s Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning Late Nights on Air.
There are no real heroes – though there is one unforgettable villain – in this family saga that takes us from 1930s Saskatchewan to Ottawa in the 1980s. Michael is the boy who never grows up, a Peter Pan stranded in adolescence throughout his long life, forever looking and acting impossibly young, breaking female hearts everywhere he goes and always being forgiven. Connie is Michael’s teacher in the small fictional town of Jewel, Saskatchewan, just before the onset of the Depression. She and Michael form a classroom bond, and many years later meet again in a town not far from Ottawa.
That later meeting is a coincidence that stretches credulity. As is Connie’s discovery that Parley, the creepy school principal in Jewel, has also relocated to another small town near Ottawa. Back in Jewel, Parley’s treatment of a student contributed to a horrible death. Almost a decade later, he has taken over as principal of a school in the fictional Ottawa Valley community of Argyle, where a schoolgirl is raped and murdered while picking berries. Connie, now working as a reporter for the Ottawa Journal, begins investigating the child’s death. Hay convinces us, through innuendo rather than explicit detail, that Parley must have had a hand in the second death as well. But is Parley truly a monster? Or is he just a misunderstood creep? These questions lead to much uncertainty in the mind of the reader.
What is certain is that the character of Parley has afforded Hay the opportunity to spin some of her richest prose. “Parley moved through the school like mustard gas in subtle form,” she writes. “You were aware afterwards that you’d been poisoned.” Or listen to Hay’s description of the way Parley looks at people: “They weren’t a director’s eyes, assessing talent. Or bedroom eyes. They were more like the eyes of a night prowler standing outside your bedroom window.” Believe me: you won’t forget Parley.
The novel’s narrator is Anne, Connie’s niece and sometime rival. Anne sets out to write a book about her mother, Connie’s more conventional sister, but finds herself coming at the story “sideways.” She seems more interested in stories of her adventurous aunt, including Connie’s relationships with Michael and Parley, and the fallout from the deaths of two children in Connie’s past.
Anne’s mother remains a minor character to the end. She is really little more than a vehicle to further Hay’s ideas about the manner in which we carry our childhood, often awkwardly, into our adult years. Hay’s philosophizing sometimes verges into slippery territory, addressing matters some might call spiritual and others might term simply superstitious. The notion of reincarnation is taken seriously in the novel. And birthmarks, we are told, are remnants of trauma experienced by ancestors or even strangers. A birthmark on the neck, for example, could signify the death of another by hanging or strangulation. Multiple birthmarks across the body could signify someone’s death by fire. Much of this overtly mystical material is wearisome, despite being presented in highly poetic prose.
Furthermore, Hay’s novel seeks to complicate these philosophical matters in unconvincing ways. Just as a reader is coming to believe that people’s lives are preordained by the actions and crimes of our ancestors, for example, the narrator affirms that “everything is accidental to some degree.” The end of the novel also hints that, like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, what the reader assumed to be true about the story may in fact be fiction. Or, then again, maybe not. It’s enough to make one’s head hurt.
Hay can be forgiven for some of the excesses in the book’s later pages. Yes, we hear the tinkle of New Age crystals as the novel sags to its close. But most of Alone in the Classroom is precise, riveting, and memorable. And Hay is capable of sending palpable chills down the reader’s spine when she has Parley creep like poison gas through the doorways and along the corridors of this book.