A prize-winning, northern read

Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights On Air
Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights On Air

Picture this: a CBC Radio station, mid-70s, Yellowknife. Your First impression upon reading the cover may be something like this: very Canadian and possibly yawn inducing.

Thankfully, in the hands of Elizabeth Hay—herself an ex-Yellowknife resident working for CBC—this year’s Giller Prize winner escapes this tragic fate and rises above predictability to become an earnest tale of self-discovery and love.

This novel is about different radio voices, and the (sometimes unexpected) personalities behind them that make up the small radio station up north.

There’s Harry Boyd, a one-time wonder voice who blew his chance at success to fade away as acting manager at the station. Then we meet Gwen Symon, a wiry, timid girl who drove up all the way from Georgian Bay just to see the north she had been listening to since the age of 16; and Eleanor, the station’s “gatekeeper” who spends most of her days watching others, waiting for her turn to shine.

Then of course there are the idiosyncratic characters, one of whom is Dido Paris—a Dutch immigrant of tall stature and imperious manners, “an unusually beautiful woman” running away from a not-so-perfect love triangle. Much like the tragic queen of the classical epic The Aeneid, Dido arrives in the novel like a time bomb waiting for an emotional self-combustion—a tall drink of water always on the verge of spilling over, chasing after passion.

Akin to using such an unusual name to introduce a tumultuous character, the novel has its shortcomings, such as the heavy foreshadowing that sometimes comes across as a little cliché. Reflecting upon a childhood tale called La fille qui était laide—a sort of Cinderella story—Hay closes the chapter with: “finally Eleanor went north herself, and now in the summer of 1975, a variation of the story was about to unfold in front of her eyes.” Of course, the biggest cliché of all is that all the characters in the novel who came up to find themselves do end up, well, finding themselves with profound change in their lives.

The book builds up to that one seminal trip up to the real, wild north that will truly alter everything—friendship dynamics, outlook on life—and there will be ample hints and suggestions that you need to read carefully about this trip.

Am I annoyed by the foreshadowing? Yes. But I have to forgive Hay for falling into the clichés because her characters are so endearing and so real in their insecurities, interactions and growth that one can’t help but feel for them and root for them.

Where Hay wins is in the details of language that is subtle and poignant, the fine brushstrokes of characterization that make every character a breathing individual, instead of a two-dimensional carbon copy. Hay’s strength lies in her rich vocabulary and intimate description that brings people alive—Harry ’s “cauliflower ear” or Gwen’s voice ringing of “softness of uncertainty, of nakedness, of no confidence at all.” Underneath the hard surface of the Northwest Territories, Hay peels away at each character to reveal a delicate and vulnerable human nature that yearns for company, compliments and commitment, as well as the often-explored irony of warm human sentiments finally unveiling themselves in the frigid north.

Hay makes you feel both the north’s deserted air and the pause in every conversation as characters have a change of heart or a sudden epiphany.

All in all, Late Nights on Air is a thoroughly enjoyable read—perhaps not the brightest charmer from the get-go, but one that slowly takes a seat and warms up to reveal its comforting and touching side in its even pace and attentive writing.

Elizabeth Hay takes part in a panel discussion on Feb. 29th from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. in Stirling C.

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