Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay
Reasons for reading: Book club, Canadian author for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge
Book description: "Harry Boyd, a hard-bitten refugee from failure in Toronto television, has returned to a small radio station in the Canadian North. There, in Yellowknife, in the summer of 1975, he falls in love with a voice on air, though the real woman, Dido Paris, is both a surprise and even more than he imagined. Dido and Harry are part of the cast of eccentric, utterly loveable characters, all transplants from elsewhere, who form an unlikely group at the station... One summer, on a canoe trip four of them make into the Arctic wilderness (following in the steps of the legendary Englishman John Hornby, who, along with his small party, starved to death in the barrens in 1927), they find the balance of love shifting, much as the balance of power in the North is being changed by the proposed Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline, which threatens to displace Native people from their land."
First line: "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."
My thoughts: While not as utterly dreary as a great deal of Canadian fiction, this one didn't do a lot for me. I didn't hate it, but overall it felt pretty blah. I really agree with Nicholas Maes' review in Books in Canada:
"Another weakness is that the novel lacks a sense of urgency and forward momentum. Very often, somewhat inexplicably, we are warned in advance that some character's decision will lead to misfortune down the road, or that situation A will cause (dramatic) situation B. Perhaps Hay felt such milestones were necessary because events on their own wouldn't sweep the audience along... Even the romance in the novel is resolved without much emotional fanfare... Eleanor loses Ralph the very day he has proposed to her, and the loss is more capricious than necessary or devastating. Harry has seemingly slipped away from Gwen, but then tumbles into her lap eight years later. This turn of events seems such a matter of happenstance that the reader, while wishing the couple well, doesn't really care one way or another."That was my feeling through most of the novel, not really caring. It seemed like the novel was made up of too many uninteresting things strung together with a few interesting ones. The Mackenzie Pipeline Inquiry stuff was dull and I never want to read about frozen lakes or herds of caribou ever again.
The foreshadowing mentioned in the review really bugged me - it was so incredibly blatant that it was annoying. And really, after all that buildup, the tragedy is sad but not particularly earth-shattering. I tired of the constant references to John Hornby's doomed expedition (more heavy-handed foreshadowing) and couldn't quite get past the sheer stupidity of novices attempting that journey through the Arctic. I was actually expecting all of them to die.
The characters' relationships struck me as odd quite often. People falling in love rather suddenly, people being attracted to horrid people - it's hard to imagine why every man (and the occasional woman) she met would fall in love with an utter bitch like Dido. She and the loathsome Eddy were made for each other. While I liked both Gwen and Harry, their relationship - with a 20-year age gap and a failed marriage each - did seem "happenstance," almost as though they ended up together because they were the only two left to get out of Yellowknife relatively unscathed.
The radio station parts were well done, especially when Gwen was learning the ropes (I liked how she was enchanted by the tiny little sound-effect door). I'd now like to know more about Yellowknife and I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the almost endless daylight in the summer Hay does have some really well-crafted passages. To me, the radio station and Barrens trip combined would have been enough for a good story, if they had been allowed to gain more momentum and not get bogged down by extra threads.