Elizabeth Hay’s wonderful novel Late Nights on Air takes the reader on an ultimately haunting trip to the dauntingly barren but breathtaking reaches of the Canadian North in the mid-1970’s, where a finely-drawn ensemble of characters are brought together in the minuscule town of Yellowknife. Hay’s talent is to create authentic, recognizable people and situate them in a place that may be exotic in its way yet one that very few of us would choose to visit for very long. For many of the characters, Yellowknife is a brief stop on their way through life, a place of possible escape where they’ve somehow landed after a disappointment or professional failure has sent them to this lonely town way off of the beaten path. Others have settled in the town years ago and decided that it would be as good a place as any to call home. The story is centered on a radio station, a nearly forgotten Canadian Broadcasting outpost that may or may not survive the coming of a new television station. An oil pipeline is also in the works causing much debate among the residents.
Although the physical setting of the book, the town and the vast natural wilderness surrounding it, is virtually a personage unto itself, the human characters that Hay has so vividly brought to life are the book’s, and Hay’s, greatest achievement. The people and the place stay with you and that, to me, is the highest praise that I can give to a book. If my description of the plot, such as it is, sounds like thin gruel, this may not be the book for you. But if you value writers who can survey the inner workings of a disparate group of individuals and plant their stories unforgettably in your mind, Elizabeth Hay is one to be cherished. This is the first book of hers that I’ve read (thank you Celia for the recommendation) but it will not be the last.