Thursday, November 4, 2010

Late Nights on Air

In Canada, CBC is one of those inescapable cultural touch-points. Whether you grew up listening to CBC radio and watching CBC television or not (and I'm not sure how you could have avoided it consistently), the logo and the broadcast style are distinctive. CBC radio is practically omnipresent, and even in small rural towns without radio stations of their own, CBC pipes in to give the news of the day. For the characters in Elizabeth Hay's Giller-winning novel Late Nights on Air, radio is what draws them together. Or rather, a radio station - not explicitly CBC - in Yellowknife, in the 1970s.

Radio is a relatively solitary endeavour for Harry Boyd, who left the "south" and the world of TV to return to the poetry of that is nighttime radio. Sitting at home one evening, Harry hears a voice on the radio and falls in love with it. When he meets Dido Paris, he falls in love all over again. Harry and Dido, along with Gwen Symon, Eleanor Dew make up to the core of a small cast of characters that also includes Ralph and Eddy.

Late Nights on Air is a novel about relationships and the way friendships shift and take on new forms when people spend long dark winters indoors, and days working together at a cramped radio station. Yellowknife, as portrayed by Hay, is a community of out-of-towners. None of the main characters are from there, but they all flourish in their own ways before moving on or moving up.

Although I love the scenes set in the radio booths and cozy living rooms, by far the best section of the novel is when Harry, Gwen, Eleanor and Ralph set out on a canoe trip north, following the path of long-lost English explorer John Hornby. Hay's descriptions of the changing Northern landscape are mesmerizing, and dispell any stereotype of the North as a cold or dead place. The canoe trip is filled with beautiful moments - glimpses of dawn and wildlife sightings - but Hay knows how to keep a story from becoming a fairy tale, and in one swoop turns an idyllic setting into a place of grief.

Late Nights on Air is a novel about solitude and how people move through relationships. It isn't a sad book, but it is a reflective one. Hay forces her characters into spaces they may not have otherwise occupied, and asks them to deal with emotions that most real people would run from. Each character is distinct, but marked by their interactions with others; the friendships in Late Nights on Air are real and deep because they don't twist the participants. Rather, like the pairs who canoed up Hornby's route, the friendships Hay describes are about working in tandem while remaining individual - one radio show moves into another, but the lines don't become blurred.

Late Nights on Air
by Elizabeth Hay
First published in 2007 (cover image shown from McClelland & Steward edition)

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