Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay
Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2008
Winner of the 2007 Scotia Bank Giller Prize.
Borrowed from the library.
Last September I read Elizabeth Hay’s A Student of Weather and really enjoyed it. I was introduced to this author through the Canadian Book Challenge and decided to read this Giller Prize winner for Canadian Book Challenge 4. The one thing I found unsettling in Hay’s writing was her use of foreshadowing, I would much rather have been left in the dark about some events.
Yellowknife is a town that seems to draw people to it, people either searching for something or running away from something. In Hay’s novel, which takes place in the 1970’s, many of those people end up working at the local radio station. This collection of strangers, along with citizens and native people, form an insular community surrounded by pressures from the rest of the world. With the building of a television station and the possibility of a pipeline, change is coming to this tiny northern town.
The radio crew, men and women dancing around each other, are filled with longing and loneliness. Some of these people have histories that contain small but devastating failures. As relationships form, the past colors desires that bubbles to the surface. Hay has a way with her characters, she lovingly draws them with a few simple sentences.
The word ignited a connection between them, an identification, a deep interest. Shy. For Gwen it was a tiny, precise, potent word like air, like loam, rock, sand, clay, marl, silt, mud, one of the building blocks of the world she lived in. An old word, wonderfully adapted to what it described. Being shy. Which meant shying away from oneself and from others, from life itself. From page 112
The novel has much to say about voice and memory. Judge Berger is holding an inquiry about the purposed pipeline. He has invited all to speak. The indigenous people tell their histories and stories, the oilmen talk of development and progress.
…”Malarkey,” Teresa said, and laughed. No purpose was served, she said, by all the malarkey that happens when people aren’t honest.
“In white culture, people are so busy lying through their teeth. So busy thinking about getting ahead and making money, so busy thinking about how they’ll come across, that they can’t be themselves in a natural way. It builds up such a complicated and depressing web.”
Teresa wasn’t laughing anymore. To Gwen she looked tired, uncharacteristically worn out. From pages 145/146.
And then there is change. As people begin to move away, as the radio station becomes more threatened, four of the crew decide to take a trip into the Barrens, following the trail of John Hornby, a man who, along with his young cousin and a friend, died there in 1927.
Although I enjoyed the beginnings of this novel, here is where it really came alive for me. This group of strangers ends up in a place that defies their imagination and become part of an event that is like a dream.
They paddled to the south side of the river, as did Harry and Eleanor, and waited with thumping hearts for the caribou to come towards them along the shore, but the animals clambered out of the water and went the other way. Then another, smaller group swam across the river and they too went up the sloping bank through low willows and spruce, the up over the rocky ledge and out of sight.
They had lunch on the rise of land above the river and realized they were on the edge of a large herd. Caribou in the hundreds were all around them, in the distance and moving slowly, or not moving at all, blending in like boulders on the open tundra of grass and heath and rounded hills. What they’d been hoping for had finally happened…
…..It was like witnessing the arrival of a myth: caribou emerged from the land and belonged to it, tentative, purposeful, graceful, shy, their colours buff, brown, grey, pale, Gwen’s colours when she first arrived at the station. What they were seeing was the mass arrival of something beautifully recessive and fleeting. They could have missed it just as easily, a few hours one way or the other. From pages 292/293.
I find this part of Late Nights On Air one of the best evocations of humans faced with the world outside themselves I have ever read, and it brought the Caribou migration alive for me in ways even magnificent photographs have not. The four continue their journey and finally reach Hornby’s gravesite. In the end, returning to Yellowknife, they suffer losses, separate, then reconnect. It is a bittersweet finish to a beautifully written novel.