Tuning in the North
Elizabeth Hay's new novel is set in a small Yellowknife radio station in 1975
Robert Wiersema Sunday, October 14, 2007
LATE NIGHTS ON AIR
McClelland & Stewart
376 pp., $32.95
It doesn't get much more self-consciously CanLit (capital C, capital L) than Late Nights on Air, the new novel from Ottawa writer Elizabeth Hay. For better or for worse, the novel includes so many textbook CanLit elements it often reads as if a checklist might have been used, or that it was written in deliberate homage to Margaret Atwood's Survival. In the hands of a lesser writer, the book, which has been longlisted for the Giller Prize, might read like parody; Hay, however, manages to create a tension-filled, beautiful work out of these textbook elements.
Late Nights on Air, Hay's third novel, follows a motley crew of outsiders and runaways through the summer of 1975. Their common ground is the CBC radio station in Yellowknife, and the midnight sun of the North in general. They come to the North from failures and disgraces "outside" (anywhere south of 60 degrees north), looking at once to lose themselves and to find themselves, drawn by the possibility of a new beginning. The North is, as one character suggests, "a place where anyone could make a fresh start." The North, however, is in a period of transition: the Berger inquiry into the Mackenzie pipeline is taking place immediately offstage (Justice Berger himself is a player in the novel), and the uncertain sense of possibility and the seeming (though not always attractive) inevitability of change mirrors the upheavals in the lives of the characters.
Harry is the acting station manager and former night on-air host, an idealistic alcoholic fleeing a career-stopping stint on television and struggling to maintain the station's integrity in the face of corporate interference (CBC, damn them, actually plans to start a television station to serve the North). His world is rocked by the separate arrivals of two young women: Dido Paris, a beautiful woman on the run from a destructive love, and painfully shy, almost voiceless Gwen Symons. The interactions of these characters, along with the enigmatic American technician Eddy, Eleanor, the high-minded receptionist, and Ralph, the station's book reviewer who spends his days photographing the natural world, are the core around which the small-scale drama unfolds.
(I suspect those of you counting CanLit elements have already lost track, and that's before the characters' ill-fated journey into the barrens. Oh, and did I mention the canoes?)
The novel reads, in many respects, as a love song to the North and its people, and to a time long-vanished but still alive in the memories of those who lived through it. Hay, who spent time in Yellowknife in the 1970s, deftly captures this elegiac tone, lending the novel a powerful pathos in addition to its inherent narrative tension. The North itself is a character, the endless days lending a surreal quality to the characters' lives, both driving and underscoring them.
At times, Hay's authorial voice is overly intrusive. Characters and their histories and emotions are often summarily encapsulated. Similarly, the use of foreshadowing and intimation early in the novel quickly becomes tiresome and heavy-handed. These are small complaints, however: Late Nights on Air is a haunting, beautifully written novel of loss and hope, a gracefully understated account of human lives against the backdrop of a time, and world, passing.
Robert Wiersema's last novel was Before I Wake
20 ottobre 2007
In sintonia con il nord
Tempo fa mi aveva incuriosito la recensione di un libro della giovane scrittrice canadese Elizabeth Hay, "Late nights on air". Non ho ritrovato proprio la recensione che avevo letto, ma questa apparsa sull'Edmonton Journal fa comunque giustizia di un libro forse un po' pieno di stereotipi da "letteratura del nord" ma ben scritto e ricco di personaggi e caratteri convincenti. Il romanzo è ambientato a Yellowknife, intorno alla locale stazione radio. E' qui che Harry, lo station manager alcolizzato, un tecnico americano, una donna in fuga, un recensore di libri e fotografo e gli altri protagonisti del libro alternano le storie delle loro speranze e delusioni in un Canada di 30 anni fa, l'epoca in cui molti giovani americani andavano oltre confine per sfuggire la guerra del Vietnam (ma questo è solo un inciso, non credo che la tematica rientri nella narrazione).