LATE NIGHTS ON AIR by Elizabeth Hay

Book Quote:

“Radio was like poetry, he told her. At its best, it could be, while television was like a blockbuster novel: one makes you think and feel, the other dulled your mind. “A radio program isn’t a show,’ he went on. ‘It’s not showbiz, it’s not an assault. It’s about one person learning something interesting and telling it to someone else.’ ”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (DEC 22, 2010)

If a heart is torn apart in the Canadian arctic and no one hears it, did it really happen? Elizabeth Hay would answer a resounding “yes.”

All of her characters – a diverse group of wounded lost souls who work together in a small Yellowknife radio station in the mid-1970s – are aching. Harry – the curmudgeonly acting manager with the cauliflower ear – has returned from a gig in television with his tail between his legs. Dido ran from the only man she ever loved – her own father-in-law — and quickly connects with the station “bad boy,” Eddy. Eleanor fled from the memories of a husband who could not consummate their reunion. And Gwen, the youngest, who arrives at Yellowknife “subtle in her camouflage” with a buff-grey shirt with a pale brown collar and no adornment, is looking to make a fresh start in an area in which fresh starts are legendary.

Within the course of this subtle and timeless novel, we get to meet these characters and more, as they reveal themselves like slowly blooming flowers. Events encroach on the town: a television station threatens to supplant the intimacy of the radio, a gas pipeline (based on the Mackenzie Valley pipeline project) is poised to disrupt the rhythm of the community and particularly its native people. The natural and charged quality of the narrative is slightly disrupted by these events and there’s a bare hint of the authorial voice.

But this author weaves her magic when she focuses on her characters, all of whom are connected to each other in intense and ultimately transformative ways. As summer turns to harsh winter, one of them muses, “Winter here does terrible things to people. You’ll find out.” And indeed, it does; people disappear or drift away or sometimes, forget to listen too closely. And what holds them together is the power of stories: Gwen’s creation of soundscapes and songs of longing during her late-night sound spot; others who present back stories that are so poignant and real you feel as if they’re coming from someone you know.

One of the strongest – and there are many – parts of this amazing book is when four of the characters embark on a journey into the rarely-travelled Arctic wilderness, where real-life Englishman John Hornby and a party of two starved to death in the Barrens in 1927. Each has his or her own compelling reason to go: “Ralph wanted to prove himself – prove that at sixty-one he was still youthful. And Eleanor had indicated that she and the Barrens might be a good spiritual fit. And Gwen had the young person’s all-consuming desire to see a place for the first time especially since it would complete a story that had captured her imagination as a child…” And Harry? “He was looking forward to a clean break from his old dissatisfactions, a summer that would help him forget his winter.”

The descriptions are exquisite: “They passed over the line into a world without walls, a land of rolling plains as exposed as the open sea. Their backs were sudden trees. Their hats were leaves the mosquitoes rested upon. Birds flew past their shoulders, like familiars. And at night, their quiet talk around the little bannock fire was similar to the voices of the trees that spooked the early Eskimos…”

Some characters will find redemption, others will face more questions. Some will make it, some will not. When Harry muses about the caribou, “He’d never known before that migration wasn’t one outbroken forward movement; it was sideways, backwards, forwards, a passage enlivened with indecision in the face of real and imagined danger,” he might have been speaking of himself and the others. The morning after I completed this book, I woke up yearning to reinhabit the world of these characters. No higher compliment can be paid.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 23 readers
PUBLISHER: Counterpoint; First Trade Paper Edition edition (May 1, 2009)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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December 22, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Canada, Character Driven, Contemporary, Drift-of-Life, Giller Prize, Literary, Reading Guide, y Award Winning Author

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