Late Nights on Air: A Novel
An odd, frustrating, exhilarating, life-affirming, low-key, thoughtful book. It won the Giller Prize and comes recommended with comparisons to Annie Proulx and Alice Munro. Yet too many times I was considering not finishing it, and some when I felt like throwing it across the room. Hay is masterful at creating the atmosphere of the Far North – Yellowknife and the northern barrens. Her portrayal of life in a radio station in 1975 also rings true. However, throughout the first two thirds of the 360-page book I found the central characters unlikable and difficult to care about. The key passage of the book, when the four take a six-week canoeing trip in the northern isolation had me howling, “What a waste,” foreseeing the inevitable end to their trek. But there are also many lovely images and passages. Towards the end of the book a grey, gaunt mangy fox is captured by animal control officers and we are told “the fox had seemed magical to her. A creature from one world passing through another. But he didn’t make it.” Each of the characters can be seen as working on passing through one world to another, usually not making it. The inevitable sadness of relationships is central, with people misunderstanding, missing out, looking the wrong way, “since isn’t it the hardest lesson in the world, learning to appreciate people if you’ve never felt appreciated?” The real life hero of the novel is Justice Thomas Berger who was commissioned by the Canadian government to examine the implications of building a pipeline through the north. Berger, contrary to all cynical expectations of the power of big money and influence, spent three years truly listening to all, going from native village to village, compiled 40,000 pages of testimony, and recommended “no pipeline now, and no pipeline across northern Yukon ever.” It is against the background of Berger’s quiet decency and eventual heroic stand that the plot of the novel unfolds, with lives marked by indecision, lacking ardent drama. The low-key characters seem for much of it plodding and anemic. In the end, though, there are rewards for the reader; the conclusion is quietly satisfying, supporting a reluctant recommendation.