Thursday, September 01, 2011


Not Lost Without Carol Shields

Just finished Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay (and just in time, meeting my personal goal of being at the keyboard no later than 9 am today; yes, 8 is better, but I slept badly last night, so there).

I loved every word of this book. It showed me how you can tell a family story: as it comes to you, in bits and pieces, going backwards and forwards, filtered through the changing motives and circumstances of the person telling the story. Because it is (at least presented as) completely fiction, it is free to be more truthful than truth—compare, say, The Year of Finding Memory, which was brought up short by the facts (or lack of them) and so didn’t move me as much as “Classroom” does.

 What is the truer truth? How you can never get the whole story, and how it changes as the new pieces are added and your understanding of the characters involved, your relatives and friends of the family, changes, as it does as you get older—especially your elder relatives, the ones who cared for you as a child and whom you see anew, over and over, as you move through life: teen, fighting free; twenties, setting your feet on your own path; thirties; a parent yourself; forties, that time of reassessment; and onward. And all this in the most economical, plain (meaning: not “lyrical”) but evocative and rich language. The best of prose. All the elements that satisfy me in a novel.  And then, of course, it’s also about teachers and teaching (the family trade); and about the regenerative qualities of art, and craftsmanship; and sneaky little bits about writing and being a writer.

Note: you may want to read the excellent review by Aretha Van Herk in the Globe and Mail, April 29, 2011:

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