The Bookbag review of Late Nights on Air

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.

This isn’t quite the opening sentence of Late Nights on Air but it does make the first page. For those of us who remember that long, golden summer of ’75 which was equally as long and golden on this side of the Atlantic and, in my case at least, just as full of late night radio, it encapsulates context perfectly. Time and place perfectly sketched in one sentence, with more effect that some more expansive authors can conjure in a chapter or two. Economy of expression is Hay’s hallmark; even writing about the vast expanse of northern Canada she avoids rambling: every last word is necessary and of value.

Two things happened at the beginning of that summer that were to change everything.

First: Dido Paris is hired off the street to cover the late night shot. Like most people, Dido looks nothing like she sounds. She’s tall, big-boned, olive-skinned, younger. Glasses. Thick, dark, springy hair… An unreasonably beautiful woman. And a confident one to boot. Not just the kind of woman who turns heads when she enters a room – not just the kind that knows they turn – the kind that expects them to.

That the station’s has-been hero, the once-famous Harry Boyd, is smitten first by the voice and then by the woman goes without saying.

He doesn’t look like he sounds either.

The very next day Gwen Symon arrives wanting a job. Not on air. Her dream is to be scriptwriter for radio drama. Not much call for those in local radio in the far north of Canada. Not much call in local radio anywhere come to think of it.

But having driven 3000 miles on a whim that proved perilous, she figures that now she’s here she’ll do whatever they’ll let her, just to get some radio experience. So she stays and tries to learn to read the news, and to deal with living in the shadow of the more beautiful, more confident, apparently more loved, Dido.

One of the threads of Late Nights is that we tend to see things as triggers, but really they are artificial reference points. What happened that summer and the next was triggered by Dido’s arrival and Gwen’s. But it was also triggered by how Dido came to be there, by the fact that the station manager had recently left, by the whole of the preceding life of Harry Boyd, by the presence of the investigative committee reviewing objections and support for the proposals to build a pipeline across native-claimed land…

Life shifts don’t depend on triggers. They depend on fuses.

The trigger theory requires us to be going along a pathway, the pulled trigger releases a projectile that hits and diverts the trajectory. A better analogy is that at any given point in our life (moment to moment) we are still at a point in time & space and sitting on a powder keg of possibility. Any number of fuses are lit that meet underneath that keg. Some will fizzle before they reach it. Others will reach it but be so weak that the keg will absorb a phut. One or two are quick enough and powerful enough to blow us backwards, forwards, sideways, or sky high… and everything, or perhaps nothing, changes when we land.

Hay’s novel focuses equally on many of the fuses…the ones that fizzle as well as the ones that explode. Her charm in doing so is to mask which are which until much later. That something will happen is not hidden. She alludes to it often; what happened afterward is the clue or the red herring that hangs around possibly portentous moments which may, or may not, turn out to be just moments.
People’s lives cross unexpectedly and, afterwards, it’s significant.

All of Hay’s characters are misfits and transplants. Newsreaders, receptionists, freelance contributors, the strange old lady who keeps phoning in to request classical music, the anti-pipeline campaigners. None of them entirely what they seem.

All with their own reasons for being at the end of the world. Some hiding, some hoping to be found, some seeking.

Four of them plan a canoe trip into the arctic wilderness in the footsteps and wake of the real-life English explorer John Hornby, who spent much of his life in the wilds of Canada and eventually paid the price. The intrepid modern explorers are better equipped than Hornby and unlike him, know what they are likely to face. But the world still turns, and it still surprises.

As the fictional lives unfold with growing natural menace, Hornby’s story and others from hard times past are spun amongst them as both echo and counterpoint. The mixture is completed with the myths and legends of the Native peoples.

Every thing changes… and nothing does… but everything might… is the (non)conclusion that permeates the whole.

Hay’s characters are sharp and real, but it is her capturing of landscape that truly sets her apart. Hers is a landscape made up not just of visual images but intensely also of sound…whilst one of the party is a photographer, another carries a microphone and tape recorder to capture equally transient moments in the formation and passage of the world.

Late Nights on Air is a love story or three or four, told with passion and restraint. It’s also an elegy for a beautiful unforgiving part of the world that we are in grave danger of destroying. And for the beautiful parts of humanity that we so frequently overlook.

Direct protests against specific events are necessary and right, but it seems to me that books such as this which seep into the consciousness and send one off in search of related texts, real and imagined, also have a powerful role in raising the desire to protect. It is a truly good book. In every sense.

Originally published on bookbag.co.uk in August 2008.

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