Late Nights on Air, by Elizabeth Hay is set in the CBC radio station of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, and tells the story of its eclectic radio hosts. Harry Boyd is a former radio talent, who having failed at television finds himself more comfortable on late night radio, only to be thrust in the position of station manager. Dido Paris is beautiful, complicated, vulnerable, and attracted to older men, but not Harry, not really; her voice is almost too perfect for radio. Gwen Symon, just a kid, but courageous enough to drive all the way to the Yukon on her own, gets slotted in Harry’s late night spot till she can hold her own.
Do you hear the call of the north? It might be best to ignore it. The north is silent; silence will never do on the radio. It is dark; “There’s nothing worse than being in the dark.” Worst of all, nothing is concealed, not for long. The winter snow melts to reveal the garbage. And Hay does not foreshadow. She tells her readers upfront: Harry will lose his job, someone will die on a canoe trip. Open like the barrens yet it can mislead. “The stillness fools you, because it’s never really still.” It cleverly misdirects you, and it’s easy to get lost.
Late Nights on Air would not have been my first choice for the Giller prize; still it was a good choice. The plot is slow at times, but the characterization is generally strong, and the story offers an intense moral survey of a proposed pipeline, as well as a rich description of the tundra on the fatal canoe trip. The reader is invited to share the allure and danger of the north.