Posted by: Kate | June 18, 2015

Book Review: Alone in the Classroom

I can always tell when I am reading a Canadian author. Beyond the place names and history, there is a certain way Canadian authors relate to the land in their writing that is a common thread between them. From W.O. Mitchell, to Farley Mowatt, Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence, Canadian authors have featured the Canadian landscape in their books. I think, given the vastness of the Canadian landscape, this may be inevitable for someone who grew up in Canada and chooses to set a novel in Canada.

Elizabeth Hay, with her book Alone in the Classroom, exemplifies that Canadian influence. I would know, by the gentle manner in which she address the landscape, that here is a Canadian author. The phrasing, the story-telling, the tone – all tell me that this is a book of Canada.

The story of course, is universal. Mystery; family history; character study; behavioural examination. Told in the first person, the story unfolds on a murder, but becomes much more about the lives and history of people around the murder. There are many layers, and Hay gently exposes them, without condemnation or critical examination. Rather she says this is who these people really were and what they did – see what you think of it all. It surprised me, where she took some of the characters. I didn’t always like the outcome, but I understood that this was supposed to feel real. And it did, it felt like I was reading an autobiography rather than a novel.

At times I felt like I was following too many threads, although they all related to the main character telling the story. We learn so much of the other characters and through the main character’s eyes. We then must come to our own conclusions about the person she is and becomes, based on her interpretation and interaction with these other characters.

I’m not sure I loved the story itself, but I enjoyed the journey of reading it.


  1. Interestingly, I rarely will take the time to determine where an author is from — even though it requires only a glance at the back jacket or the last page of the book. And yet…I have found, in the past, that when I’ve searched that information out because I’ve loved a book that much…they tend to be Canadian writers. Alice Munro. Margaret Atwood. So many more. I’ve never been able to pinpoint why exactly. Except it seems they write ‘real’ exceptionally well.

    I looked this book up and I wonder, based on your last sentence…would you recommend it? From the description, it sounds quite dark…

    • Tough question. I am always hesitant to recommend books to people. Did it totally turn my crank? No. But it has much to commend it in terms of style and writing skill. I don’t know that I’d call it dark, compared to other books, but it has a fatality, or perhaps slight futility, to it that didn’t sit comfortably with me. Probably the point. I do know that a colleague told me it is her favourite book.

      • I can see where your hesitation comes in with recommending books…we all have such varied tastes. That said — what you wrote above is the perfect way to do it. You made it less about personal preference and more about the book… I think i’ll add it to my list…

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