Late Nights on Air comes daubed with the usual eulogies, yet this is one book that truly merits the ecstatic blurb and more besides. It is Elizabeth Hay’s third novel, after A Student of Weather (2000) and Garbo Laughs (2003), both of which have been lauded in her native Canada and, to a lesser degree, beyond. Late Nights on Air is set largely in the mid-Seventies, in Yellowknife, the main town of Canada’s Northwest Territories. Harry Boyd, edging into his forties, has failed elsewhere, and has come to lick his wounds at the local radio station where his career began. He is joined there by a motley band of fugitives: honey-voiced Dido who fell in love with her father-in-law further south; clumsy ingénue Gwen, in retreat from an uninspiring home town; as well as some monosyllabic, disdainful veterans.
The novel opens in June, ‘the start of the long, golden summer … when northern light held that little radio station in the large palm of its hand’. Under the glare, Hay’s characters twist and turn, their feuds and edgy pacts played out against the implacable wilderness, which sometimes consoles and sometimes appalls them. Hay’s prose is riddled with memorable descriptions: in autumn the sky above Yellowknife is
filled with a moving white fog, which began to shimmer and ripple downwards in long, shaggy icicles, then sideways in draperies of pale green and violet — a huge, heavenly version of the gas flame of a jeweller’s torch shooting out to the side and shifting in colour from white to blue to green to orange.
When winter comes a local woman, Lorna Dargabble, goes for a walk and disappears: ‘Whatever tracks Lorna had made had been covered and wherever she might have gone lay hidden by snow.’ Vanishings recur throughout; Hay’s characters are compelled by the earlier disappearance of British explorer, John Hornby, who travelled widely in the northwest of Canada and, in 1926-27, over-wintered with inadequate supplies near the Thelon River. He and his two companions never returned. At the icy heart of the narrative is a similarly ill-judged expedition that Harry, Gwen and two others make into the Canadian wildness. Hermann Melville wrote that there’s something in whiteness that chills the blood; death and danger lurk beneath the glittering snows of Hay’s north. Lorna Dargabble is found frozen, a lock of hair in her hand. Dido falls in love with a colleague, Eddy, but there are suggestions that he is violent and unhinged. A more general threat hangs over the region; there are gas companies planning pipelines, clashing with local groups.
One of the dust jacket eulogies invokes Annie Proulx, but Late Nights on Air is not precisely a Shipping News of the Canadian north. Hay’s prose is less punchy and wry than Proulx’s, though it has a powerful rhythm of its own. Her characters are softly, slowly drawn; the dialogue between them is whimsical, laconic, but always convincing. She has a wonderful ability to engross you in finely observed details, quotidian rituals. This is a superb portrait of unremarkable lives, and a beautiful prose poem to vast open spaces.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 22, 2008