There is, for many of us, a magic time in our lives – that summer or winter when we find ourselves in a unique place, surrounded by a handful of people we are connected to in a deeply spiritual way. All our movements are natural, yet charged; the relationships are intense – so intense that we fear, without acknowledging so, that they must fade.
Elizabeth Hay’s fifth novel brings this magic to the summer of 1975 in Yellowknife. A collection of lost souls find themselves at the local CBC radio station, resisting the network’s plans to launch a TV station, caught in the timelessness of the midnight sun, and wondering if anyone is listening, knowing that likely no one is. Harry is the curmudgeonly, rumpled old pro, beaten down by failure in the south; Dido left the only man she knows she’ll ever love; Gwen is crippled by shyness but is forced on air nonetheless.
These broken souls are barely coping; they fall into the north and into each other. Gwen spends long nights on the radio, creating soundscapes and playing songs of longing; Harry tells stories of travelling deep within and never emerging, of loving strongly but unrequitedly.
The book’s heavy foreshadowing sometimes jars. The first few mentions of a coming tragedy are innocuous enough, but these hints pile up and begin to feel gimmicky, especially when there are two within a few paragraphs of each other. There are even, in one instance, two within one sentence. They feel like a shout amidst a book that is all about whispers. But this is a minor complaint – Hay’s novel is magical, and the flaw is merely that the reader, so willing to
believe the trick, sometimes spies the card up the sleeve.
An ensemble cast of richly drawn characters animates this evocative novel, set at a small radio station in the Far North in the 1970s. In the course of the narrative, Elizabeth Hay explores their hopes, longings and losses, and what brought each of them to the North. Late Nights on Air is a quietly captivating novel about the power of love, landscape and storytelling.
Late Nights on Air won the 2007 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
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From the book
It was the beginning of June, the start of the long, golden summer of 1975 when northern light held that little radio station in the large palm of its hand. Eleanor Dew was behind the receptionist's desk and behind clever Eleanor was the studio. She looked up, surprised. Harry rarely darkened the station door except at night when he came in to do the late shift and got away with saying and playing whatever he liked. He paused beside her desk and with a broad wink asked about the new person on air.
"Hired off the street," she told him. "The parting shot of our erstwhile manager."
"Well, well, well," said Harry.
From Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay ©2007. Published by Emblem Editions.