Saturday, June 30, 2012

Guest Post- Ann Weir's review of Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights on Air

Hopes for a fresh start abound in this novel about life at a Yellowknife radio station set in 1975. The central character, Harry Boyd, is right back where his career started after an ill-advised move into television in Toronto. “You don’t look anything like you sound,” says the station’s newest employee, Gwen Symon after meeting Harry. “That” Harry replies gravely “is the tragedy of radio”. Gwen, who has driven all the way from Ontario in search of a job and some sort of sense of herself, arrives at the station “and nobody noticed.” Other characters include Dido Paris, a beautiful and self-assured woman, whose Dutch accent captivates Harry when he hears her on air; Eleanor Dew, the station’s long serving receptionist and Ralph Cody, a tweed jacket wearing freelance book reviewer. Dido is attempting to escape an ill-advised affair with her father-in-law, Eleanor left a failed marriage attempt and Ralph yearns to find respect and stature in Yellowknife. The first part of the story focuses on this growing cast of Mary-Tyler-Moore-ish radio station characters, as their work and personal lives become entangled. This all occurs against the backdrop of an inquiry into what would be the largest gas pipeline ever built in the North. In the second part of the book, Harry, Gwen, Eleanor and Ralph embark on an ambitious canoe trip in and north of Great Slave Lake, attempting to retrace part of the final journey of Artic explorer John Hornby.

Throughout the novel, Hay does a good job of capturing the romance of both radio and living in the North. Setting the story in the mid-70’s gave me the sense of reading about a different and perhaps simpler time, when it’s believable that local radio was the best way for the residents of Yellowknife to feel connected to their part of the world and each other. Weaving in the events and result of the inquiry added to this mood and supported the narrative about the canoe trip nicely. The characters make their way through the pre-global warming/natural disaster Northwest Territories at a time when I, as an optimistic reader, get the sense that the results of the inquiry would have made a real and lasting difference. I did however find the contrast between the initial character driven story and the later descriptive chapters a bit awkward. Although this author’s descriptions of the sights and sounds of the canoe trip didn’t disappoint, I found the first part of the canoe trip to be uneventful and slow. Hay also sprinkled some unfortunate foreshadowing throughout the book that took away from the flow of the story. But that aside, Late Nights on Air is essentially an imaginative and moving story about personal loss, whether it’s loss of a person, an object, an ideal or a certain time in a certain place where everything seemed just about right.

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