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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

A Meditation On Family In Nineteen Forties Canada

Alone in the Classroom - Elizabeth Hay

Set in the nineteen forties, Alone In The Classroom uses the sexual assault upon a pupil in a small town in Canada as the starting point for a series of meditations on family relationships and the nature of memory. In different ways each of the characters is caught up in the eddies created by past events. They all struggle to come to terms with the legacy of their childhoods and to create their own identities within the limited space allowed them.

It's beautifully written with a confident and accomplished voice and Elizabeth Hay is superb at tracing the gradual process by which we come to understand our own behaviour through reflecting on the behaviour of other people. But it's also a frustrating read because the plot, such as it is, meanders between generations of the narrator's family and jumps about so much that it's sometimes hard to remember where we are in time and who we're talking about. Towards the end of the book the narrative drive seems to break down completely and the writing fragments into a cluster of tenuously connected character vignettes.

Despite these flaws, it's clear that Elizabeth Hay is a writer of real depth and this is literary fiction of very high quality. It's a book that reading groups will savour but not one for those who prefer a page turner.