Late Nights On Air by Elizabeth Hay published in 2007 has measured up upon reading to all the praise it received at that time. A Canadian best seller, it attracted critical aclaim and went on to win the Giller Prize. For a long time it was on my ever-growing literary wish list. I am very glad to have moved it to the top at a friend’s suggestion rather than left it in the middle and it has inspired me to seek out more of this author’s work. Lost in the Classroom is in the line-up on my bookshelf somewhere after On Beauty but before Lionel Asbo.
Elizabeth Hay writes with the calm assurance of someone who observes but does not judge the shortcomings of we poor mortals. The cast of characters is a collection of damaged but resilient souls seeking a safe haven to mend their metaphorical broken wings and splintered bones. It is 1975 and the story telling involves an expat community of southerners living in Yellowknife linked one way or another to a local radio station that is expected to decline in importance because television is on its way north. There is Harry; the charming middle-aged romantic with a cauliflower ear who is head over heals in love with the beautiful mysterious Dido. Harry considers himself to be a loser having failed at marriage and his broadcasting career, his downhill path accelerated by bouts of uncontrolled alcoholism. Dido cannot reciprocate his feelings because she herself has run away from forbidden love involving her father-in – law; a passion that destroyed her marriage. In chapter two Gwen, a mousey little creature in her early twenties arrives with an ugly bruise on her throat looking for a backdoor into broadcasting. In an odd twist she enters through radio’s front door being asked to step into Harry’s job as the late show host while he temporarily fills the position of station manager. Then there is thirty something Eleanor, the receptionist described as the gatekeeper of the radio station but more of a maternal figure watching over the cast of characters as they come and go, providing encouragement and comfort in an unselfish sort of way.
So these are the principal characters but it would be impossible to demonstrate in a few words how Elizabeth Hay’s storytelling creates such compelling portraits of these and other individuals as they deal with the past and embrace their futures. To do so I would have to quote long passages, which would be entirely out of place here. Her characters size each other up, draw conclusions about each other then change their minds… so very like human beings everywhere who have thrown together in a small place. They keep their own insular company; create their own little social and working world. The North as an idea slyly insinuates itself into their world as the days grow longer into twenty four hours of daylight and then when Autumn approaches the nights close in making the Northern world of these individuals smaller and so narrow they are left with but themselves. The world opens up again with the arrival of Spring as light fills the horizon and with the return of the sun each individual finds a new spirit of adventure and the courage to move on with their lives.
I like the structure of this book. It opens with telling the story of the main and secondary characters so the reader knows their past and what has brought them to Yellowknife. Soon we are drawn in and begin to like the characters despite their failings and become interested in their wellbeing and disappointed when they do not measure up to their own expectations such as when Dido allows herself to be drawn into another destructive relationship. The characters are situated in the story like the spokes in a wheel. Then in the second part of the book something extraordinary happens as the story moves away from the small humble frontier town of Yellowknife further North onto the pristine plateau of northern lakes and tundra. Four of the characters decide to take a canoe trip that follows the trail of a late 19th century expedition that ended in tragedy. At this point the mood of the novel changed so abruptly that I was left somewhat worried that the author had allowed it to loose its energy and had gone off on another tangent without properly finishing the story she had started. However a few pages in I realized that this was where we as readers were meant to be lead; into the merciless splendor that is the North. It is early spring and the barely thawed lakes are a powerful metaphor of human love, so beautiful but potentially so cruelly destructive.
There are two things I want to mention about this part of the novel. First, it is very dangerous to move a novel from the realm of straightforward prose to that of near poetry; the danger being that you can loose the reader with such a ninety-degree turn. There is no worry here because the transition is masterful and I was swept away by the language; it felt right and I willingly went along for the ride. The second thing I want to mention is something of a conceit of mine that comes out of being a Jane Austen fan (or maybe, to use the full word, fanatic). As I settled into this second part of the book I was reminded of the novel Northanger Abbey which undergoes the same abrupt transfer of location that puzzles the reader at first as if the author had started a whole new story. The heroine is relocated from the parties and dances and many distractions of Bath to a gloomy country house where the company is drastically reduced and the atmosphere as felt by the heroine, becomes dark and sinister… a completely different world. To my mind, Elizabeth Hay has done something similar in that the light filed plateau of perfect sky mirrored in crystal lakes is a different world from the rough hewn town of Yellowknife. There you have it! Elizabeth Hay keeps very good company.
I won’t describe the canoe trip, as that would give too much away. The last couple of chapters leap forward into the nineteen eighties. The story comes to a satisfying end with everyone situated where they should be.