Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 384 pages

Publisher: Counterpoint; First Trade Paper Edition, 2009

Price: $14.95

ISBN-10: 1582434808

ISBN-13: 978-1582434803

You’ve heard it said, “hurts so good.” About the writing style of Elizabeth Hay, I can say: cuts so soft. Her words, her turn of phrase, her sweet sentence construction, it is as precise and expertly sculpted as with a sculptor’s chisel or a surgeon’s scalpel. Yet soft. The sharpest knife enters your flesh with hardly more than a red line—and finds its target. The heart. The reader’s mind. There are no ragged edges here.

The setting for this novel intrigued me right away. The book was a choice in my book club, recently joined, and I thrilled to the story description of northern wild, a small group of misfits who broadcast from a radio station in a town called Yellowknife, where there is nothing but radio.

I was suddenly back in my days of traveling northern Canada and Alaska, and listening to a voice on the radio, passing messages from friend to friend, husband telling wife he would be home late, George telling Harry that the part he needs for his truck has arrived, and hello! Shirley’s baby is born!

Late Nights on Air has more sophistication than that, and this group of radio broadcasters and technicians and managers bring with them more than just the drama that flies over the air. There is also the air between them. And their love of the clean air about them. But at the same time, there is that intimacy of community, of strangers connecting by bond of shared humanity. Late Nights on Air is love story of the misfit, love story of the northern wild, love story of life, lived however we manage. And like all love stories, these loves, too, die, except, perhaps, the one for the open wild.

A proposed gas pipeline runs through the story like a guideline of place to cut. Hay makes the incision cleanly, and from this opened place emerge the voices of the town, those who have come to it because they found they did not belong anywhere else, and those who belong there root and soul and have so through ancestry. What we see in that opened place is the wilderness inside a man’s, a woman’s heart, and also the stunning wilderness of northern Canada, in this town called Yellowknife and far beyond. It is a cruel yet beautiful world, and we are spared neither cruelty or beauty.

Such fine lines Hay writes:

“…her voice sounded like a tarnished silver spoon…”

“…in the free and easy woods of herself…”

“…constant light was like endless caffeine…”

“…she seems to want to erase herself…”

“At stake was something immense, all the forms of life that lay in the path of a natural gas pipeline corridor that would rip open the Arctic, according to critics, like a razor slashing the face of Mona Lisa.”

“The girl had laced up the soft shoe of her voice.”

“Dido had a vibrancy about her, like a watered plant after a drought.”

“Such a lot to unpack from that slender gift of a sentence.”

“…in the wind their voices tore like fabric…”

“And the thought came to him that it wasn’t just one person who had died, but all the filaments of life connecting that person to everyone he’d ever known and to every place he’d ever been.”

“The sight of her did something to his heart. He felt its exact location and entire size inside his chest.”

And there, she’s done it, Hay has done it: thrown away all the excess, trimmed away all the fat, and left the words that describe a moment, a sensation, an image, a life exactly. She has even done the remarkable, passed my personal test of expert word artist, and written both one of the best love scenes I’ve read in many years (and not one thing graphic or crude about it), and later, one of the most profound breaking up scenes I have ever read (and not one thing graphic or crude about it, either). Add for frosting on this Arctic ice cake one of the most memorable death scenes I’ve encountered on written page, without a single note of melodrama about it. These are typically the scenes where even the best writers fall into muck. Where even the best writers die, impaled on a cliché. Hay shines.

These human lives tangle and untangle, and they tangle, too, into the wild around them, and there is great sacrifice, yet also great humanity. Not in the deeds marked by medals and honors, but moments marked by one human being alleviating, for but a passing instant quickly moved into memory, the loneliness of another before both go on their way again. These are the imperfect, caught lovingly in their fascinating imperfections, and made perfect by the artist who captures them so on paper for our witness.

Late Nights on Air is winner of the 2007 Giller Prize. Elizabeth Hay is a former radio journalist, author of six other books, all of which I intend to read, and winner also of the Marian Engel Award. She lives in Canada.

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