Listen to this article
Alone in the Classroom, by Elizabeth Hay, MacLehose Press RRP£8.99, 270 pages
Elizabeth Hay is an accomplished author, and a past winner of Canada’s Giller Prize for fiction (for Late Nights on Air, 2007). Her fourth novel, Alone in the Classroom, is set up as a classic murder mystery. It opens with the last sighting of 13-year-old Ethel Weir on an August morning in the rural Ottawa Valley, 1937. By sunset the girl’s body is found, the hunt for her killer begins and soon a charismatic, curious young reporter called Connie Flood arrives in the tiny town of Argyle to pick over the case.
But as the book progresses it becomes clear that Alone in the Classroom is less a whodunnit than a who’s who of the Flood family (mainly the women) and the characters (mainly men) who influence their lives over the better part of a century. Ethel’s murder is simply the jumping-off point for an exquisite study of relationships, narrated by Connie’s niece Anne, which meanders in graceful prose across the Canadian landscape and across generations.
An intense sense of landscape is central to Hay’s writing. She has a gift for metaphors of “emotional geography”; a child is a “grey pebble” waiting for the right teacher to release its true colours. And each character’s sense of place is judged precisely: Connie, for example, is introduced as “a young woman who made a desk for herself wherever she went”. It is Anne, Hay’s sensitive narrator, who eventually emerges from it all to inhabit the places – and stories – that she has inherited.