June 24, 2011

Alone in the Classroom - Elizabeth Hay

I approached this book with some mixed feelings. I read Late Nights on Air, Hay's last book, after it won the Giller back in 2007 and I was not overwhelmingly impressed. The last third of it was exciting (when the group goes on the canoe trip, for those of you who have read it), but I found the first 2/3 of the book slow-going, muddled, and hard to get attached to any of the characters.

Reading this book, I could hardly believe that it was the same author. The writing style was very crisp, the story moved along, and it was the sort of book that I didn't want to put down.

One of the things that I loved about this book is that it is being told by Anne, and we see things as Anne sees them, and we learn things as Anne learns them. It is truly a first-person narrative where there is no all-knowing presence giving hints as to what is to come. (Though like N icola, I did have trouble at times, remember who the "I" was that was telling the story, especially when jumping between different generations and stories.). There were a lot of layers to this story, however in the end they all came together to tell the story of a family. I could compare it to an onion, with all of the layers making up the whole, except that I don't like onions and I did like this story!

What are some of these plot layers? There is Connie, a teacher in rural Saskatchewan in 1929, struggling to teach a student with dyslexia who is gifted in other area and struggling with a creepy principal who may or may not have "interfered" with a 13-year-old student. Then in 1937, Connie is a reporter covering the murder of a young girl in the Ottawa Valley, where her life ends up linked with Anne's when her brother meets and marries a young woman who become Anne's parents (ie Connie is Anne's paternal aunt). Anne also tells us the story of her own life, and then ends with telling the story of her mother's family and of her mother, growing up with a domineering mother (Anne's grandmother). My overall impression is that Anne had to approach family history indirectly through her Aunt's story before she could get up the courage to examine her own story and the story of her direct ancestors.

But more than the plot itself (in fact I found the plot annoying at times, with implied significance to certain events fizzling out to nothing - though isn't that the way real life goes at times?), I loved seeing how all of these layers and generations and characters came together to make a whole story. This story could have been told chronologically, beginning with Anne's maternal family and their carpentry business in the Ottawa Valley intersecting with Anne's paternal family struggling in the Saskatchewan prairie; but that would have been much less interesting.

4 good books in a row (and the one that I'm reading now is interesting too) - I'm on a roll!

Has anyone else read this book? What did you think? How would you compare it to Late Nights on Air?

9 comments:

John Mutford said...

As a teacher, I don't particularly enjoy reading about teaching, but I'd probably still give it a chance someday.

I think I'm the only one who preferred the 1st half of Late Nights on Air to the 2nd.

Kate said...

John - teaching does play a significant role in this book, especially in some of the earlier parts.

As a physiotherapist, there is much less written in fiction about my profession! I was just talking to some physiotherapist friends the other day, and we were commenting on the fact that when a physiotherapist appears in books/movies/TV shows, we are usually not portrayed in a very positive light. A bit strange since physiotherapy as a profession generally has a very positive image.

Wanda said...

Having quite liked Late Nights on Air, I wouldn't hesitate to give this one a go though I'll be waiting for it to cease being a "rapid read" at the library first.

YouknowSesay said...

I really need to get into reading.. I feel like I lack the patience to be honest..

http://ohnoamilate.blogspot.com

Kate said...

Wanda - I hate the "rapid read" - too much pressure to get through the book before the week is up. Though with overdue fines $0.25 per day, paying for 4 days to finish a book is still cheaper than buying it!

YouknowSeasy - I have had the discussion with people about decreasing attention span in this era of Twitter and other social media. But I find that when I get into a good book, I can't put it down; to the point of not getting other stuff done and becoming sleep deprived...

Constance Reader said...

Oooh,this sounds chilling! I want to read it...thanks for the review.

Wanda said...

I briefy interupt my love of the library for this very important message: True that a few days worth of fines is still cheaper but what I don't get, with 5 to 10 copies (on order or in circulation) why can't they put even one aside as a non-rapid read?! Grrrr...

Wanda said...

Many spelling errors above, see what happens when I get on to this thorn in my side ... *rollseyes*

Kate said...

Constance Reader - definitely worth reading!

Wanda - "briefy interupt" LOL! One thing that I love about my Mac is that spell check is on all the time, no matter what program I am using! (Though that only helps when I am typing in English...) I love libraries too, but I get frustrated at times with some of the local library's policies (I never know until I check out the book whether I will have it for 1 week or 3 weeks), and the absence of books I am looking for in their holdings. Thank goodness for inter-library loan! I was looking for a book this week that they didn't have, so I am going to have to pay them a visit at some point to see if they can access it through ILL.