The Arctic is hot, but I doubt that is why accomplished Canadian novelist Elizabeth Hay wrote a novel set in Yellowknife and the Barrens in the mid-1970s. In Late Nights on Air, Hay has returned to a city and landscape she knew in the 1970s. Returned in her imagination, that is; she has not actually been there since the 1980s. Which makes her achievement in this quiet, elegiac book even more astounding than it is simply in the reading.
The book has three settings: a little radio station in Yellowknife, not unlike the CBC station where Hay worked back then; a larger, in some ways metaphorical northern world, brought into focus by the Mackenzie Pipeline Inquiry hearings conducted by Justice Thomas Berger between 1974 and 1977; and, in the final third of the book, the Barrens, the route for a canoe trip delineated by the British traveler John Hornby, from Great Slave Lake, via Pike’s Portage, to Artillery Lake and then into the Thelon River. It’s a 500-mile, six-week canoe trip undertaken by four of Hay’s characters.
Hay’s protagonists are a motley crew of transplanted southerners, varying in age, each with reasons, conscious and otherwise, for their migration north. They include Dido, a dark, restless beauty desired by all; Gwen, a pale mouse of a girl – at first; Harry, the station manager, a drinker and a cynic, but oddly heroic; Eddy, a lean, mean American enigma; middle-aged Eleanor, soft and literary; Ralph, an aging editor/writer who spends hours photographing watery weeds in the bay.
I say “protagonists” because this book is rather like a play, a radio play, a chamber piece for voices set in the vast silent landscape of the North. The book’s title, those four spare monosyllables, conjures up silence and listening, over great distance. Many scenes in the book are grounded in silence and particulate sound, in music in the form of old records played on the radio (remember “needle-dropping”?) and also in the quaint sound effects of radio drama – the little wooden door with a creak and a lock and a satisfying slam – which Gwen discovers and incorporates into her one-hour midnight show.
Thomas Berger is himself a character, more off-stage than on, but his hearings (the word suddenly has meaning) are the arena where the residents of Yellowknife and outlying communities find their voice, become able to articulate their apprehensions about a massive pipeline delimiting their future. But in one lovely moment, we hear his voice. Hay has him call the station, after midnight, to say thanks to Gwen for a piece of music. And so the reader has the sense of the whole North listening to and hearing one another through the medium of radio.
At about this time, Harry introduces the then-huge novelty of newscasts in Dogrib. (Berger’s own 197 report, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland, is written in prose that fairly leaps off the page, still, and nicely confirms, in title and content, the fictional tensions in Hay’s novel.)
“I’ve Come to Love the Silence …,” an old CBC radio drama based on John Hornby’s journal (found after his tragic final journey through the Barrens in 1926-1927) inspires the canoe trip in the book. Few novelists would risk an extended scene consisting of a group of oddballs sitting around a radio station listening to an old tape and talking about it.
There is also an odd, persistent foretelling of events, so that nothing much, with a single exception, comes as a surprise. But this is Hay; there are many low-key scenes where the point is seldom action, but simply people discovering their own characters and the shifting dynamics of their feelings for one another.
And their voices: Gwen literally finds her voice during the course of the novel. Her first on-air outing is a disaster, all squeaks and breaths, but as she learns to cut tape (remember reel-to-reel?) and edit sound, her voice becomes stronger, her character rounded.
After a year of hothouse interactions (sex and petty jealousies) and incidents (sex and suppers and walks in the snow), four characters set off for the Barrens: “a ragged troupe of toiling actors. …Ralph the gentleman duke. Eleanor the wise Queen. Gwen the moody princess … and [Harry] the blistered and bitter and disgruntled fool.”
That is all I will say about the canoe trip, except to note how exquisite Hay’s descriptions of landscape and creatures and light and sound are, how she creates enormous spaces with few words, and makes the reader party to the journey, listening, marveling, breathing, fearing.
Hay made this journey down the Thelon in 1978 and kept a journal, but the wonder is how she turns her experience 30 years ago into a synesthetic narrative that pulls these eccentric loners into close contact with one another and also with this heartbreakingly beautiful landscape, a “thin place … where seen and unseen meet.”
So while public talk of the Arctic is boisterously militaristic and anxiously environmental, it is a pleasure to spend time there in a very different tempo and frame of mind. Elizabeth Hay has managed not only to capture the details of northern life in the 1970s, and hidden beauties in the low-lying geography of Yellowknife, but also the quirky rhythms of such a place and time, the stops and starts in relationships, people abruptly disappearing, fragments of narrative that drop out of consciousness and are resolved many pages later. And life governed by weather, the “bright, bitter light of June,” those nights when the sun does not set, the throbbing pulse of the Northern Lights – which the aboriginals say also has sound, something white migrants rarely are able to hear. And air that becomes, catastrophically, wind.
Originally published in The Globe and Mail, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2007. Review by Marian Botsford Fraser.