'They were alone again “in the land of feast and famine”. Nothing for so long, and then abundance, and then nothing again, but a nothing haunted by the previous abundance.'
In Late Nights on Air, four people, two men and two women, from the local radio station in Yellowknife set out on a canoe trip into the “Barren land”. Their plan is to follow in the footsteps of the ill-fated explorer, John Hornby, who died of starvation on the Thelon River in 1926, fifty years earlier. The previous summer, one of the four, Gwen, had arrived in Yellowknife, bruised and vulnerable, but determined on a new start and keen to work in radio “in the background”, only to find herself thrust into newsreading by Harry, the world-weary old hand in charge. Despite her nervousness she begins to find her feet on the late night show, making friends as she does so - her tentative friendship with Lorna Dargabble, who is desperate for classical music and who later disappears, is delicately drawn, while her spiky relationship with the elegant Dido has real veracity. With Eleanor, the station receptionist, and Ralph, the book reviewer, and with Harry himself, she is more comfortable and as these friendships grow, so does Gwen’s confidence.
Their interest in John Hornby is something they share: Gwen has heard a radio drama about him which caught her imagination as a child, and after the station staff listen to it, Harry casually remarks that he would like to see where Hornby died, “casually setting in motion the events of the following summer”. From this point onwards, these events are foreshadowed, creating a sense of premonition in the reader, a sense heightened by various events, such as the disappearance of Mrs Dargabble, and by a series of losses experienced by Harry.
All this is set against the background of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, an investigation into the proposal to run a gas pipeline from Alaska, described at the time as “the biggest project in the history of free enterprise” and one which promised to have massive environmental and ecological impact, threatening vulnerable species and potentially destroying the way of life of the First Nations people who lived in its path. The inquiry is both explained and explored in the book, not as a history lesson, but as an undertaking of vital importance to the characters: to Dido and Eddy, incomers but activists in the cause, to Teresa, whose grandmother is a village Elder and who will give evidence about the effect the pipeline would have on her people and their way of life, and on the wildlife. Hay’s book incidentally celebrates the inclusivity achieved in this inquiry (and others in Canada, at least from the viewpoint of a non-Canadian) and it’s an important backdrop, the larger community of the north being reflected in the microcosm of the radio station.
I had been going to describe Late Nights on Air as a rambling book, because its shape defies convention, but that would suggest that there were digressions, or that it wasn’t tightly constructed, and that would be untrue. In his review, John Mutford described its shape as being like that under a bell curve – an inspired description, which exactly catches the way in which the long, tailing-off ending is still an intrinsic part of the story. There’s a strong sense that the characters came from real lives before the book starts, and continue afterwards, just as there were historical events which preceded the pipeline inquiry and present-day developments arising from Judge Berger’s recommendations.
In 2007, Late Nights on Air won Canada’s Giller Prize, which may be one of the reasons why so many people read and reviewed it in the first and second Canadian Book Challenges. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and this year I decided that I had to read it for myself for the Third. I’m glad I did, it’s a book that is going to stay with me and one I’ll read again.