Friday, March 11, 2011

Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights On Air

Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights On Air

Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights On Air has been on my Must Read list since it won the Giller Prize for Fiction in 2007. And in my To Read pile since I bought a discarded copy at the Friends of the Library Book Sale two weeks ago. This book has everything, and with one minor exception, everything it has is something I appreciate. It is set so specifically in a real place, the city of Yellowknife, in Canada's North, and on a fateful canoe trip out from Yellowknife in 1975. The historic setting is also important as the characters are impinged by the Berger Inquiry when Judge Thomas Berger toured northern communities listening to the concerns of every individual and group who wanted to speak about the anticipated impact of a Mackenzie Valley pipeline across the delicate barrens landscape. So it has historical significance as well as contemporary relevance because the wait period is over and the pipeline looms again. Hay braids the eras and themes tightly into a sturdy lifeline of a story of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Late Nights On Air reveals these themes of delicate ecological balance, indigenous people's rights, colonization, capitalism, economic development through a novel which is basically a mystery told through character. And the characters too have so many levels--the psychological, the personal, and the political. The narrative point of view is omniscient; we learn what all the characters are doing and what most of them think. There is Harry Boyd, a disgraced announcer back at the northern radio station where he started; Dido Paris, Dutch-born Anglophile, a refugee from doomed love; Gwen Symon, intrepid neophyte looking for her passion; Ralph Cody, the book reviewer, local photographer, and bibliophile who introduces through his collection the voices of previous European explorers [including Samuel Hearne and John Hornby whose grave the paddlers visit]; Eddy Fitzgerald, technician of questionable ethics; Eleanor Dew, the receptionist; Lorna Dargabble, Bostonian shipwrecked in Yellowknife; and Teresa Lafferty, from there, speaking local languages, and representing the future. One of the above crashes; two of them run away; four of them go on the canoe trip and three return. And through the canoe trip, the barrens themselves become a living breathing character of shocking beauty and fragility inhabited by equally breathtaking creatures of nightmare and dream. Go. Go there. But tread gently.

Photo Lichen Eating Rock 
Jim Tallosi.

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