Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

It was like reading two books in one: Hay introduces us to the group of lost souls staffing CBC Radio Yellowknife in 1975 – then sends four of them on an epic trek through the barrens, changing their lives forever.

Most everyone has a time they recall – fondly or not – when their life changed. It may have been a job, a trip, a semester in college, but the friends made and lost, the experiences gathered meant you could never look at life the same again. This is the story Hay is telling. Two young women, Dido and Gwen, learn the ins and outs of radio, over a year in the Canadian north. But they learn about much more than radio.

Most striking about this novel is the contrasting of the characters to their natural environment. I’ve always been a sucker for books that do this well (hence my love for Barbara Kingsolver). Late Nights on Air tells the stories of these women, and their coworkers, against a backdrop of change in the north, with the MacKenzie Pipeline hearings bring controversy and conflict to their community, pitting economic growth and advancement against tradition and environmental protection. The pipeline is not part of the story, yet the controversy affects all of the characters, in different ways.

And then the story within the story: Gwen’s obsession with the story of John Hornby, the canoe trip through the barrens, retracing the explorer’s steps, visiting the cabin where he and his companions died. The trip tests all four would-be explorers physical and mental limitations, proving their mettle, bringing glimpses of happiness to otherwise lonely characters, yet ending in tragedy.

Overall, this was a book I found hard to put down. All characters charmed me – either by being charming, or so curmudgeonly I was charmed despite myself. There was layer upon layer of detail: radio’s struggle against television, a young woman’s journey to find herself, the history of exploration in the north, the conflict between advancement and tradition in the north, and on and on. Brilliantly done. My only complaint is there was perhaps an overuse of foreshadowing. I felt like Hay was hitting me over the head with the fact that “something bad” was going to happen, to that point that when it did it was almost anti-climactic.

Still, well worth a read. Also, makes me want to revisit Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens, as I kept having flashbacks to grade six English class.

Paperback: 376 pages

Publisher: Emblem Editions; 1st Trade edition (April 1 2008)

ISBN-10: 0771040199

ISBN-13: 978-0771040191

 

 *Winner of the Giller Prize in 2007.

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2 thoughts on “Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

  1. Started listening to this on Between the Covers on CBC a while ago and gave up because the initial intros to the characters seemed really charicatured with a focus on appearance reminiscent of high school. Guess maybe if they all went off on an adventure I might have become more interested but it didn’t hold me. Of course, the reading/interpretation can affect that.

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