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Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

Late Nights on Air (2007)

by Elizabeth Hay

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9466214,681 (3.67)175
It's 1975, and the town of Yellowknife in Canada's Northwest Territories is in the middle of a dispute over a pipeline through the area. The small local radio station who reports on the controversy is undergoing some changes of its own. Hard-edged veteran broadcaster Harry Boyd has taken over as manager, and he has his eye on beautiful young Norwegian transplant Dido.… (more)



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Showing 1-5 of 61 (next | show all)
This novel won the Giller Prize in 2007. Hay tells the story of the staff of a CBC radio station in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, in 1975-76. It's a motley crew, full of people who are running away from various life experiences. Dido Paris has left a broken marriage and ill-fated love affair. Gwen Symons is fascinated by radio and drives from Ontario to Yellowknife and begs for a job. Harry Boyd is getting a last chance at his radio career after flaming out in television. Eleanor isn't running away from anything explicit, but her spinster life seems to work better in a small, remote town. And there are other staff and also Yellowknife residents who play small and larger roles.

The cast and setting feel like a cross between the TV shows Northern Exposure and WKRP in Cincinnati. They're less quirky than misfit and there's a bit of an edge. Everyone falls in love with Dido, who will temporarily return the favor and then move on to someone who is clearly Not Good For Her. Gwen finds her voice in a late-night time slot, and Harry is wryly self-aware that he's probably going to screw this chance up too. And lurking in the future is a CBC TV station in Yellowknife, which will destroy the primacy of radio there as it has everywhere else.

A parallel storyline concerns the debate over a natural gas pipeline that will run from the Arctic through MacKenzie Bay down to the South. Judge Berger has been tasked with collecting testimony about its effects from First Nations and other Canadians whose lives and livelihoods will be affected. Unlike in Alaska, there has been no land claims settlement policy initiated as part of the pipeline, and many Natives are extremely concerned about the effects of a boom-town, gold-rush development on their economy and society. Not all, though; some are hoping to cash in.

The novel is leisurely to a fault, tracing the relationships and daily lives of all these actors. I knew going in that it was not a barn-burner, but at about 40% I really started to wonder what all of the storytelling was for. It's very well written and evocative of both the time and the place, but it didn't seem to have a through-line. But then the last third centers around a canoe trip four of the characters take in the far north, tracing one of the many ill-fated explorations that ended in tragedy. While I haven't canoed in the Arctic, I've traveled and camped there, and Hay does a remarkable job of depicting the terrain, the feel of being up there, and the lasting effects such journeys can have on people. The natural environment, which has been present throughout the novel, bursts into the foreground and goes from supporting to main character.

The final chapters tie up a number of loose ends in ways that are not entirely expected. Characters who disappeared come back for a final scene, and we see what happens to several of them. It's a fitting conclusion. ( )
  Sunita_p | May 17, 2019 |
this review is for the audio edition, narrated by the author.

elizabeth hay spent years working in radio with the CBC, so she totally has the vocal chops to narrate her own work. i have had the pleasure of seeing hay in-person, so knew i would be in for a treat. plus, this is a novel i already love, having read it twice in paper. i was completely transported by listening to the story. though, there was one moment in the book that i, now that it was experienced it again, have decided i must have very purposefully evicted any memory or recollection ability from my brain. look authors - yes, all of you 😂 - not many of you can write sex scenes well. it seems to be an achilles heel for so many literary writers. given how eye-rollingly bad some of this kind of writing can be (there is a reason the 'bad sex in fiction award' exists), my deepest hope is that, at the very least, the author had a hell of a good time coming up with their passages. i cannot even begin to guess what hay was thinking on, but i fear the moment is now burned into my brain forever, and i kind of want that brain space back. again, 😂 😂 😂. if you *must* know, and apparently you do, hay includes a scene in which she describes one character's penis, through another character's feelings about it. length and girth are mentioned, and there is a comparison to an oh henry! bar. i mean... what? the character pondering her partner's penis wasn't even hungry, and there was no 9 ½ weeks scene going on. i fear i will never look at an oh henry! bar the same way. ever. again. that brief moment in the book aside, i still love this story, and how vividly hay brings yellowknife, nwt to life. i love it when settings are weighty characters in excellent stories. ( )
  Booktrovert | Feb 9, 2019 |
There is something inherently intimate about radio. I am not talking about “shock jock” or talk radio where the sole purpose of the program is to brooch a controversial topic and get callers lighting up the switchboard to voice their opinions. I am talking about the late night deejays… the Venus Flytraps of the world with their silky voices, their sympathetic ears. Hay draws on her early work history as a Northwest Territories-based radio broadcaster for the CBC to weave an eloquently powerful Canadian novel. Hay stated during an interview that the starting point of this book for her was that real voices have fictional faces, that we make up what we think should be associated with the voice we hear. Hay’s makes use of this ‘disconnect’ to present a 1970's circa northern world at a cross roads, with sub-themes of a television station coming to encroach on radio country and a proposed gas pipeline that may threaten the wildlife habitat and native communities of the region. Hay’s characters are a motley crew. A straggling collection of humanity that, for reasons conscious or unconscious, have individually migrated to this remote hinterland. For this group, the radio station representing an outpost: a rest stop from their former lives before before heading on to their future.

Essentially, this is a love story, or maybe a series of love triangles as the characters bob and weave through the motions of infatuation, seduction, smothering love and abandonment. In Hay’s deft, sympathetic hands, the reader experiences the poignancy of unrequited love and the unforgiving nature and striking beauty of the Yellowknife and the Barrens. Through her writing, one can feel Hay’s compassion for the human spirit – sadness, longing, tenderness – as well as a strong love and respect for the raw power and isolation of the far north.

A richly poignant and deeply satisfying read. A well-deserved winner of the 2007 Giller Prize, IMO, and one of my favorite reads so far this year. ( )
  lkernagh | Apr 23, 2018 |
I liked this book mostly because I lived in the North and found it nostalgic to read. The writing was decent. Better than decent maybe. As others have pointed out, the characters are a little one-dimensional. Ralph really needed some work, in order for us to care more. Dido and Gwen are interchangeable for a while. Gwen is possibly the main character and really isn't fleshed out. Harry might be the most fleshed out... but even then it's not much. However, the descriptions of the north are really good. Definitely the best parts. ( )
  weberam2 | Nov 24, 2017 |
This novel is deeply embedded in Canada's north. It conjured up the bleakness, isolation and danger of those distant lands in a convincing and fascinating way. I enjoyed every chapter.

I did find that there was a bit too much foreshadowing, which in the end seemed unjustified, but that's only a minor quibble. The background detail of disastrous Arctic explorations gave an interesting historical aspect, while the more recent impact of the 1970s Berger inquiry into the Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline was also educational in its recognition of the rights of Canada's aboriginal peoples.

In the end, the story seemed to be about the arbitrary nature of human lives, loves, and losses, as well as the deep impact that one individual can have on those they meet. ( )
  AJBraithwaite | Aug 14, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 61 (next | show all)
This book will no doubt be remembered as Hay’s “Yellowknife novel” or even her “radio novel” – it follows the lives of a handful of people running a northern CBC station in the 1970s. The characters’ various hang-ups are magnified and elevated by the lonely vastness....That city crops up in many of Hay’s works, through explorations of Canadian history and through what she calls a north-south/hot-cold fixation. But this novel is the first time she explores the territory deeply, as much as she explores the medium of radio deeply. “What actually was on my mind more than Yellowknife was the whole dilemma of shyness,” she says. “For some strange reason, shy people are frequently drawn to radio as a workplace...That effort has culminated in Late Nights on Air, with its adventure, entanglements, and suspense. But the book also has plenty of emotional insight
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In memory of David Turney 1952 - 1988
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Harry was in his little house on the edge of Back Bay when at half past twelve her voice came over the radio for the first time.
Harry confessed he had no sense of direction. He told Eleanor about he infamous night in Toronto when he went to play poker at a buddy's house for the umpteenth time, but walked into another house entirely, on a different block. "I was hanging up my coat when the owner came out of the kitchen. I figured he had to be the new player. So I said, 'Where's the booze?'"
She thought how changeable and infinitely various the air is, and how she was being paid to cram it to the gills with talk, to bury it under endless information, and she couldn't do it any more.
Lying on the ground, being reshaped, was like lying awake beside a new husband
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Average: (3.67)
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