According to Harry Boyd, one of the main characters in Elizabeth Hay’s new novel, radio is like poetry and television is like a blockbuster novel. A radio program, Harry continues, is “about one person learning something interesting and telling it to somebody else. In Late Nights on Air, which was awarded Canada’s Giller Prize in 2007, many people tell other people many other things – and many of them are very interesting.
Concocting a story from the entanglements and longings of a group of transplanted people working at a small radio station in the Canadian north (Yellowknife, to be exact) back in the 1970s is so old-fashioned as to appear nervy. The medium, the place and the time period come across as aspects of another world, almost forgotten and recently excavated. Over the course of the novel, a television station encroaches on radio country and a gas pipeline is in the offing, threatening the region and its native communities. But such “new” developments are rarities, and tension surrounding their arrival isn’t what keeps the reader going.
Hay’s characters are deftly drawn in a sentence or two. Consider the cauliflower-eared radio host Harry Boyd: “A year ago an old boss stumbled upon him sleeping in a hotel lobby in Toronto and pulled a few strings to get him a night shift in the Northern Service, the very place where he’d started out 15 years ago.” And young Gwen Symon, who has driven more than 3,000 miles to resettle in Yellowknife: “She had a large bruise on her throat – the size of a dollar bill torn in half, the purple of the 10-dollar bill. Dead-white skin (as white … as someone’s feet, in shoes all year round, might be).”
A few of the characters dance helplessly around a seductive woman named Dido Paris, and Harry Boyd is chief among them: “Despite the red glow of the on-air light, he then pushed through the studio door, only to be met by one of the great mysteries of life. We look so very different from the way we sound. It’s a shock, similar to hearing your own voice for the first time, when you’re forced to wonder how the rest of you comes across if you sound nothing like the way you think you sound. You feel dislodged from the old shoe of yourself.”
Desire and unspoken longing infuse the air at the station, seeping out into the streets of Yellowknife and even the tundra beyond. But if a heart breaks in the northern reaches of Canada, and no one hears it, does it make a sound? Hay dwells on the loneliness of the world she depicts. An equal-opportunity empathizer, she vividly renders the slightly rumpled men and quiet women of the station, far from their original homes.
Sometimes there are too many of them to keep track of – and too many place names as well. The Hanbury River, Sifton Lake and the Beaufort Sea may inspire specific images among Canadian readers, but to someone unfamiliar with the geography they merely create a vague, undifferentiated Canadianness. And the imposition of the true story of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline project on an otherwise invented narrative creates a jarring tonal shift, like moving from the quiet beauty of late-night radio to the information overload of a bluntly made television documentary. Luckily, the drama of the proposed pipeline is only one aspect of an elaborate and finely honed narrative.
The body of a missing minor character is eventually uncovered after a thaw, and when Dido Paris disappears with a sexy and possibly violent radio technician the atmosphere at the station changes. The longest – and best – section of the book takes four of the characters off on a canoe trip to a rough, desolate region of the Barrens, recreating the fatal journey of the English explorer John Hornby: “They passed over the line into a world without walls, a land of rolling plains as exposed as the open sea. Their backs were sudden trees. Their hats were leaves the mosquitoes rested upon. Birds flew past their shoulders, like familiars.”
The writing in this section is consistently strong, yet when someone stops to read aloud from Farley Mowat’s Arctic anthology, Tundra, the words of earlier travelers feel stiffly planted. Hay is so skilled and original a writer she need never rely on anyone’s voice but her own.
Originally published in The New York Times, Sunday, June 1, 2008. Review by Meg Wolitzer.