switterbug (Betsey)'s Reviews > Late Nights on Air

Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay
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's review
Feb 22, 2011

it was amazing

"...this summer of 1975 took on the mythical quality of a cloudless summer before the outbreak of war, or before the onset of the kind of restlessness, social, spiritual, that remakes the world."

In the Canadian Northwest territories, a place of harsh winters and summers of unrelenting light, the hamlet of Yellowknife remains like an anachronism. Population ten thousand, including native people that have lived on this land for thousands of years; it was their flesh and blood. Now the Mackenzie Pipeline project, a huge construction of an oil and gas pipeline, threatens to "rip open open the Arctic...like a razor slashing the face of the Mona Lisa."

A little radio station of the CBC is the center of the novel. Harry Boyd, the 40-something interim manager, whose luckless history of ill-repute but brilliance has brought him back to radio after a wash with TV, is an unlikely romantic. He has fallen in love with the sound of Dido Paris on air, a resonant, smoky-voiced and Netherlands-born young woman of unconventional beauty, a wide-shouldered, slim-hipped enigma of melancholy temperament. She was hired as a parting shot of the former manager.

Gwen Symon, a mousy young girl-woman from Ontario, has bravely driven herself in her Boler trailer all the way to Yellowknife to work in radio. She listened to a radio show as a child called "Death on the Barren Ground," about John Hornby, the Englishman who starved to death on an Arctic adventure into the Barrens in 1927. She has since read his biography, three times! Harry is familiar with Hornby's history and his biographer, who lives close by. He is willing to be patient with Gwen's parched and defenseless voice.

Eleanor Dew is the point person or office manager at Yellowknife radio, a woman who manages to be pretty even though no part of her is pretty. She is a striving poet and a thoughtful friend to everyone.

Eddy Fitzgerlad is the cipher, a radio technician of unknown other talents, a well-cut but terse, insolent man, an unsettling presence in the radio station, with his eye on Dido.

Ralph Cody is the radio book reviewer and prodigious photographer of the far North Canadian landscape, with small nicotine-stained hands that are deft with a camera and tripod.

This cast of well-drawn, unforgettable characters, as well as some lively secondary characters, is the driving force of the novel. Hay's sumptuous sense of place, redolent of author Jane Urquhart (but more droll), and her precision with character building, fuels the story with an electric and kinetic buzz. Her use of radio as an extended metaphor, her vast store of literary allusions, and her buoyant linguistic play are the ingredients that make for an intelligent and contoured novel. The back story of the proposed pipeline add dimension and depth to the tale.

During the summer, four of these characters agree to a six-week Arctic adventure by land and canoe to visit the place of John Hornby's exploration and death. The Barrens were the rugged, treeless, and desolate landscape of the interior Arctic. This would be a mighty challenge for the group, even in summer. The adventure is filled with drama and a supple examination of the human spirit. All four of the radio adventurers will be put to a supreme test of inner and outer strength and tenacity.

This is the first book I have read by Elizabeth Hay. I am a delighted admirer of her work now, and I look forward to reading her previous novels. Highly recommended for readers interested in solid and original characters, evocative depiction of landscape, and piercing themes of human survival.
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