Any adventure into the wilderness requires careful planning, hardy shelter, adequate food supplies and the ability to recover from disaster. Canadian author Elizabeth Hay finds the same caution should be applied to work and personal relationships.
Starvation, emotional and physical, is the main danger lurking in Hay's "Late Nights on Air" (Counterpoint, 384 pages, $24). The novel, which won Canada's prestigious Giller Prize, follows the employees of a small radio station in a remote northern Canadian town.
They are all either lovers or rivals at CFYK in Yellowknife. Weary radio veteran Harry falls in love with Dido's voice before meeting the enigmatic immigrant. Dido instead falls for Eddy, the rough, controlling radio technician. Young Gwen is eager to make her mark on Canadian broadcasting, yet finds herself in atense standoff with Dido for career advancement and off-air attention.
Their personal battles play out against the looming threat that a new television station poses to their jobs. Meanwhile, a proposed gas pipeline threatens to alter their region's fragile environment. Some will find a long canoe trip into the Arctic a way to cope with being phased out, remove themselves from rivalries and spend quality time with a place and people who soon may be lost.
There's also a true story within Hay's story: Her characters are fascinated with the tragic deaths of explorer John Hornby, his teenage cousin and another companion who failed to adequately plan for a winter in the barren Arctic. Gwen particularly looks to this history for the strength to endure and forgive Dido's slights at the radio station.
For all the elements at play, "Late Nights on Air" is not a plot-driven work. Hay's spare, nuanced writing reflects the landscape of northern Canada, where ice lingers all winter and summers expose everything to unrelenting, though shifting, light. The novel unfolds as a long, lovely examination of how we learn to see ourselves in the places we choose to live.