So. → How about tuning in to CBC Radio….. in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories! In the year 1975! Exactly.
The mere thought of it is enough to send a muskox into premature hibernation.
But enter the literary genius of Elizabeth Hay, for the above-mentioned is the exact setting of Late Nights On Air, a novel that is never for a moment, boring.
She peoples her book with fascinating, somewhat eccentric yet believable, transients.
Harry Boyd is a castaway from the Toronto television scene, now working the late shift at CBC Yellowknife and obscurely living out his banishment in the far north. One night he falls in love with the “low-pitched sexiness” and “elusive accent” of a new voice on the airwaves.
The voice belongs to Dido Paris, a novice, literally “hired off the street.”
Harry begins immediate flirtations with her, and is immediately rebuffed.
Dido comes from who knows where and is as mythical as both her names. An ethereal, commanding presence throughout the book, even though in the last half of it, she is largely absent, having run off with the technician, Eddy Fitzgerald.
She seems to be the benchmark against which other female characters in the book assess themselves, one being Gwen Symons, another novice broadcaster.
Gwen does not have the natural skills that Dido enjoys. In fact, Gwen needs a lot of patience and understanding, and the new interim manager [Harry Boyd] is able to nurture and encourage her toward a realization of her own skill and proficiency.
The novel gravitates toward the discovered mutual interests of four co-workers at the radio station, these being Harry Boyd, Gwen Symons, Eleanor Dew, and Ralph Cody. Together they embark on an arduous six-week canoe journey through the Arctic wilderness known as the Barrens.
None of them could have prepared adequately for how arduous it would indeed, prove to be. All are changed, marked for life, and for death, through the experience. Loves are gained, and [tragically] lost.
I would describe the author’s attention to landscape as being downright Urquhartian. You sense the rippling waters and crackling ice, hear the tinkle of Northern Lights, and slap yourself for mosquitoes, as you read.
← Elizabeth Hay, receiving the 2007 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
I found the book evocative of a bittersweet play between disclosure and reticence. Between characters being drawn and attracted to each other but for diverse and understandable reasons, unable to acknowledge it in time.
Harry’s feelings for Dido are denied, withheld, temporarily assuaged, and then returned to a state of numbing unrequitedness. Dido herself suffers the pain of unrequited love, while maintaining a sort of second-best relationship with Eddy Fitzgerald. Similar frustrations occur in several pairings of relationships, culminating in the heartrending shattered dreams of Ralph and Eleanor.
The last few pages offer the reader a beautiful redemptive reversal to this trend.
Hay, herself an intrepid canoeist, former Yellowknifer, and radio broadcaster, is obviously in her element here in Late Nights. And not on these levels alone, but also on yet another, very important one → superb novelist.
I look forward to reading more of her work.
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