Late Nights on Air

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Overview

The eagerly anticipated novel from the bestselling author of A Student of Weather and Garbo Laughs.

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 ...

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Late Nights on Air: A Novel

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Overview

The eagerly anticipated novel from the bestselling author of A Student of Weather and Garbo Laughs.

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. Their loves and longings, their rivalries and entanglements, the stories of their pasts and what brought each of them to the North, form the centre. 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.

Elizabeth Hay has been compared to Annie Proulx, Alice Hoffman, and Isabel Allende, yet she is uniquely herself. With unforgettable characters, vividly evoked settings, in this new novel, Hay brings to bear her skewering intelligence into the frailties of the human heart and her ability to tell a spellbinding story. Written in gorgeous prose, laced with dark humour, Late Nights on Air is Hay’s most seductive and accomplished novel yet.

On the shortest night of the year, a golden evening without end, Dido climbed the wooden steps to Pilot’s Monument on top of the great Rock that formed the heart of old Yellowknife. In the Netherlands the light was long and gradual too, but more meadowy, more watery, or else hazier, depending on where you were. . . . Here, it was subarctic desert, virtually unpopulated, and the light was uniformly clear.

On the road below, a small man in a black beret was bending over his tripod just as her father used to bend over his tape recorder. Her father’s voice had become the wallpaper inside her skull, he’d made a home for himself there as improvised and unexpected as these little houses on the side of the Rock — houses with histories of instability, of changing from gambling den to barber shop to sheet metal shop to private home, and of being moved from one part of town to another since they had no foundations.
From Late Nights On Air

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
#1 National Bestseller

“Elizabeth Hay has created her own niche in Canadian fiction by fastening her intelligence on the real stuff — the bumps and glories in love, kinship, friendship.”
Toronto Star

“Hay exposes the beauty simmering in the heart of harsh settings with an evocative grace that brings to mind Annie Proulx.”
Washington Post

"Dazzling....A flawlessly crafted and timeless story, masterfully told.” — Jury citation, the Scotiabank Giller Prize

“Exquisite….Hay creates enormous spaces with few words, and makes the reader party to the journey, listening, marvelling….” — Globe and Mail

“This is Hay’s best novel yet.” — Marni Jackson, The Walrus

“Invites comparison with work by Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood. Outside Canada, one thinks of A.S. Byatt or Annie Proulx.” — Times Literary Supplement

“Written by a master storyteller.” — Winnipeg Free Press

“Psychologically astute, richly rendered and deftly paced. It’s a pleasure from start to finish.” — Toronto Star

From the Hardcover edition.

Ron Charles
The plot of this novel is a faint signal, a series of short moments, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, often flecked with intimations of tragedy. Hay's writing is so alluring and her lost souls so endearing that you'll lean in to catch the story's delicate developments as these characters shuffle along through quiet desperation and yearning…There's real sadness here, but real tenderness, too. Hay listens to these people—their surprising comedy and their fragile needs—with enough sensitivity to catch, as she puts it, "a single word balanced atop a mountain of feeling."
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

After being fired from his latest television job, a disgraced Harry Boyd returns to his radio roots in the northern Canadian town of Yellowknife as the manager of a station no one listens to, and finds himself at the center of the station's unlikely social scene. New anchor Dido Paris, both renowned and mocked for her Dutch accent, fled an affair with her husband's father, only to be torn between Harry and another man. Wild child Gwen came to learn radio production, but under Harry's tutelage finds herself the guardian of the late-night shift. And lonely Eleanor wonders if it's time to move south just as she meets an unlikely suitor. While the station members wait for Yellowknife to get its first television station and the crew embarks on a life-changing canoe expedition, the city is divided over a proposal to build a pipeline that would cut across Native lands, bringing modernization and a flood of workers, equipment and money into sacred territory. Hay's crystalline prose, keen details and sharp dialogue sculpt the isolated, hardy residents of Yellowknife, who provide a convincing backdrop as the main cast tromps through the existential woods. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Against the backdrop of a judicial inquiry into a proposed construction of a gas pipeline across the Arctic that would threaten the northern environment and the native way of life, this novel follows an engaging assortment of characters working in the Yellowknife CBC radio station in the mid-1970s Canadian North. Inspired by a radio drama about adventurer John Hornby, who traveled extensively through the Northwest Territory before starving, Gwen Symon arrives as a dewy-eyed newcomer with dreams of working behind the scenes in radio. Mentored by the talented but hard-drinking station manager, Gwen ends up working the late shift on air. She gradually comes into her own, just as radio makes way for television and the station crew begins to disband. Before they do, Gwen and friends set out on a journey to retrace Hornby's route. Equal parts Northern Exposureand Lost in the Barrens, this novel, already the winner of Canada's prestigious Giller Prize, compellingly captures one of the many small moments in which the Canadian North began to lose its essence. A strong choice for all libraries.
—Barbara Love

Kirkus Reviews
Lost souls converge on a remote radio outpost in the Canadian subarctic, in Hay's meditative latest (Garbo Laughs, 2003, etc.). The town of Yellowknife, on the shores of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, is the bleak terrain on which Hay tests the mettle of her ensemble cast, denizens of the town's CBC affiliate. Announcer Harry is reeling from a disastrous foray into Toronto television. Receptionist Eleanor and reporter Dido fled ill-advised marriages-in beautiful, enigmatic Dido's case, a marriage aborted by an affair with her father-in-law. Ralph, the station's book reviewer, worships Eleanor from afar. Eddy, the engineer, has a vaguely unsavory background. Gwen has driven 3,000 miles to start her radio apprenticeship in the hinterlands. She finds on-air announcing torturous, whereas dulcet-voiced Dido is a natural. Dido is a guy magnet and smooth-talking Yank Eddy handily outstrips all rivals. When Eddy blackens her eye, Dido cohabits briefly with Harry, exploiting his neediness. Interwoven with the workplace drama is a larger controversy-Judge Berger has landed in Yellowknife, a stop on his nationwide tour to elicit citizen comment on whether to block construction of an Arctic gas pipeline across pristine Native lands and wildlife habitats. Eddy and Dido (future toasts of Los Angeles and New York) leave to pursue their exalted destinies, clearing the stage for the quieter but more absorbing lives of lesser mortals. Harry, Ralph, Eleanor and Gwen decide to retrace the route of doomed Arctic explorer John Hornby. For weeks during the summer, the foursome backpack and canoe across frigid lake country, encountering late-receding ice, unremitting daylight, mosquitoes andflies. Wildlife sightings are awe-inspiring (muskoxen, ptarmigans and a vast herd of caribou) and frightening (Gwen provokes a grizzly near Hornby's shack). Richly observed detail of the stunted yet flourishing plant life of the northern latitudes is representative of the outwardly modest but inwardly lush lives of the characters. The sheer ordinariness of existence in the most atypical of settings is Hay's preferred territory, which she mines with prodigious skill. Agent: Bella Pomer/Bella Pomer Agency Inc
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780771040191
  • Publisher: McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
  • Publication date: 4/1/2008
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 5.74 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Hay’s fiction includes A Student of Weather, a finalist for The Giller Prize and the Ottawa Book Award, Garbo Laughs, winner of the Ottawa Book Award and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, and Small Change (stories). In 2002, she received the Marian Engel Award. Hay worked for cbc Radio in Yellowknife, Winnipeg, and Toronto. She lives in Ottawa.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

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. A voice unusual in its sound and unusual in itself, since there were no other female announcers on air. He listened to the slow, clear, almost unnatural confidence, the low-­pitched sexiness, the elusive accent as she read the local news. More than curious, already in love, he walked into the station the next day at precisely the same time.

It was the beginning of June, the start of the long, golden summer of 1975 when northern light held that little radio station in the large palm of its hand. Eleanor Dew was behind the receptionist’s desk and behind clever Eleanor was the studio. She looked up, surprised. Harry rarely darkened the station door except at night when he came in to do the late shift and got away with saying and playing whatever he liked. He paused beside her desk and with a broad wink asked about the new person on air.

“Hired off the street,” she told him. “The parting shot of our erstwhile manager.”

“Well, well, well,” said Harry.

Despite the red glow of the on-­air light, he then pushed through the studio door, only to be met by one of the great mysteries of life. We look so very different from the way we sound. It’s a shock, similar to hearing your own voice for the first time, when you’re forced to wonder how the rest of you comes across if you sound nothing like the way you think you sound. You feel dislodged from the old shoe of yourself.

Harry had pictured somebody short and compact with sun-­bleached hair, fine blue eyes, great legs, a woman in her thirties. But Dido Paris was tall, big-­boned, olive-­skinned, younger. Glasses. Thick, dark, springy hair held back off a wide face. Faintest shadow on her upper lip. An unreasonably beautiful woman. She ­didn’t look up, too intent on the newscast typed in capital letters on green paper, three-­part greens, the paper-­and-­carbon combination the newsmen typed on.

He turned to check who was in the control room. Eddy at the controls and one of the newsmen standing at Eddy’s shoulder. An audience, in other words.

Harry took out his lighter, flicked it, and put the flame to the top corner of the green. And still she ­didn’t look up.

An upper lip as downy as he imagined her legs might be. And yes, when she stood up later and came around the table, her legs were visible below a loose blue skirt, and the mystery of her voice was solved. She was European. European in her straightforwardness, her appearance, her way of speaking, which was almost too calm, except when the page was alight. Then her voice caught fire. She stopped turning her long pencil end on end, pacing herself. Stopped speaking altogether. Her eyes went in two directions — one leg on shore, the other in the canoe, but the canoe was pulling away from shore and shit — she picked up her glass, poured water on the flames, and read with jolting speed, repressed panic, to the very last word at the bottom of the page.

The news clip came on, she switched off her microphone and looked up wildly at the man with the boyish gleam in his eye. But he ­wasn’t boyish, he was balding, bespectacled, square-­jawed. She noticed his cauliflower ear.

“You’re Harry Boyd,” she said.

And she, too, had imagined another face — a big, bushy head to go with the relaxed, late-­night growl that she heard only as she fell asleep. The man who’d once been a big name in radio, she’d been told. He was shorter than she’d expected and his hands trembled.

Half an hour later, perched on Dido’s desk, bumming a cigarette, Harry asked her how she’d come by her intriguing accent. She studied him, not quite willing to forgive his outrageous behaviour, until he asked if she was Greek. Then out bubbled her easy and seductive laugh.

No chance. She’d grown up in the Netherlands near the German border, the daughter of a Latin teacher who’d listened to the bbc and written questions to “London Calling” about expressions he ­didn’t understand. Her father had a reel-­to-­reel tape recorder and taped programs off the radio. She learned English at school, she told Harry, but her pronunciation was terrible and so she’d asked her father to make some tapes for her, and then she practised her English listening to Margaret Leighton reading Noel Coward and to Noel Coward himself, acquiring in that way her peculiar European-­English accent, which she hated. “I figured marriage to a Canadian would solve my problem, but it ­hasn’t.”

“Two minutes,” said Harry, “and you’re already breaking my heart.”

“It ­didn’t last,” she said.

“Then we have something in common, you and I.”

He slipped her glasses off her face and breathed on the lenses and polished them with his handkerchief, then slid them back over her nose, saying, “And Dorothy Parker said men never make passes at girls with glasses.”

“Parker?”

“Dorothy. A writerly wit who famously claimed to be ‘too fucking busy and vice versa.’”

Dido was only semi-­amused. To Eleanor the next day she called Harry “the loser,” a put-­down softened by her accent; it came out “lose-­air.” She said he’d taken a drag off her lit cigarette, then set it back on the ashtray. “So cheap,” she said with a shake of her head and a faint, unimpressed smile.

“But not without charm,” countered Eleanor. “Charm, sex, insecurity: that’s what Harry has to offer.”

Dido was more interested now.

“He’s too old for you, Dido.”

But his age was the last thing Dido minded.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Harry Boyd, an admitted romantic, tries to make an impression on Dido Paris by setting her news script on fire while she is on the air. Fire is an ancient metaphor for passion, and Late Nights on Air could be described as an anthology of romantic love. Mrs. Dargabble’s first husband had urged her to "jump," and many of the characters do, with differing results — from the sexually charged union of Eddy and Dido to more gradual entanglements. Discuss the varieties of love present in this small, isolated community. Which ones strike you as the most successful?

2. One of Elizabeth Hay's great novelistic strengths is her sense of place and the ways she knits her characters into their settings. In her first novel, A Student of Weather, the places included Saskatchewan, New York City, and Ottawa; her second novel, Garbo Laughs, is set in Ottawa, most memorably during the ice storm of 1998. In Late Nights on Air, set in Yellowknife and the North, the sense of place and her characters' relationship to it is particularly intense. Sometimes readers talk about a novel's setting as if it were a character in itself. Do you think that is the case in Late Nights on Air? What descriptions of place, in Yellowknife or on the canoe trip into the Arctic wilderness, have stayed with you most? How does the sense of place work to underscore and echo the characters and their situations or to contrast with them?

3. In Late Nights on Air, fictional characters interact with a real, contemporary person, Judge Thomas Berger. Although they only interact with him minimally and formally, Berger and his commission are important components in the novel. Discuss Berger’s approach and personality, the ways in which it informs the Inquiry, and the place of the man and the Inquiry in Late Nights on Air.

4. Late Nights on Air begins with Harry falling in love with the sound of Dido's voice. In the novel, Gwen finds her radio voice — both in the sense of finding an attractive physical voice and in the sense of expressing her own personality. Voice and sound in general are natural preoccupations for people who work in radio, and the novel pays consistent attention to them, from Gwen's fascination with sound effects to the voices of the announcers (in English and Dogrib), and the many descriptions of natural sounds and music. Discuss some of the ways Elizabeth Hay uses voice to characterize her men and women, and to highlight her larger themes.

5. Elizabeth Hay says in her acknowledgements that the story of the adventurer John Hornby was always at the back of this book. A fascination with Hornby and Edgar Christian is one of the things Gwen and Harry have in common, and the explorers' cabin is the destination of the canoe trip that takes Harry and Gwen, Eleanor and Ralph into the wilderness, where their lives will change forever. Does Hornby’s story of a quixotic and doomed exploration connect with, and perhaps comment on, the story of the modern characters — and if so, in what ways?

6. One of the most sophisticated elements in an Elizabeth Hay novel is the fact that her flawed characters don’t find any conversion or easy resolution: Dido, for example, cannot bear criticism, and Harry, a veteran radio man, can’t separate his personal failure in television from the medium in general. Problems don’t get neatly wrapped up in Late Nights on Air, and the characters, though changed, in many ways end as imperfect as they began. Discuss some of the things that the characters have learned in the end — about each other and about themselves. Discuss some of the situations or personalities that never get "fixed," and the particular flavour this gives the book.

7. Harry's relationship with Dido is never really fulfilled, but Harry’s yearning remains largely undiminished. What do you think the author is saying about human beings in general?

8. Just before he died, Eleanor's father was reading her the French story of "la fille qui était laide" — a girl so ugly that she hid herself in the forest where the fresh air, sun, and wind made her beautiful. The narrator tells us that, in the summer of 1975, a version of that story would unfold. The theme of this kind of transformation has been seen before in an Elizabeth Hay novel (A Student of Weather). Who is the transformed woman in Late Nights on Air — or should it be "women"? How does it happen?

9. Discuss Dido and her personality, and how she powerfully affects each of the characters — Harry, Gwen, Eleanor, Eddy. To what extent is she affected by her past? Where does her power really lie? Is she, in fact, as confident and strong as she seems?

10. There are frequent instances of foreshadowing in Late Nights on Air. The narrator writes, for example, about three unfortunate things that would happen to Harry in the coming winter, and in another place that "the events of the following summer would make these pictures of Ralph's almost unbearably moving." The reader is regularly pulled into the characters' futures, but without knowing the details. In what way does foreshadowing function in the novel? How does it affect your reading experience?

11. Eleanor, who is reading William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, has a religious awakening in the course of the book. Most of the other characters don’t share her connection with institutionalized religion, but there is a strong undercurrent of spirituality in the book, felt differently by different characters. Discuss the varieties of religious or spiritual experience you find in the book.

12. There is an elegiac tone in Late Nights on Air, and a sense that an older, more human way of life is disappearing, as radio gives way to television and as the traditional ways of the North are threatened by the pipeline and, more generally, by the South. Where are the shades of grey in the conflict between old ways and "progress"? Does the novel give you a sense of where the novelist stands on this?

13. John Hornby’s biographer, George Whalley, tells Gwen that both he and his subject approach life "'crabwise,' meaning sideways and backwards rather than head-on." Harry likes this idea of "a wandering route notable for its 'digressions and divagations'.... A route of the soul, perhaps." Does "crabwise," in the sense Hay is using the term, suggest something of the structure chosen for Late Nights on Air? In what way does this approach reflect the characters’ yearnings and the way they are able to express themselves? Is this true of human beings in general?

14. "Gwen found herself thinking about the vulnerable rivers and birds and plants and animals and old ways of life." She learns, for example, that an oil spill, in turning the ice black, ruins its reflective power so that it absorbs light and melts, thus changing the environment. At one of its deepest levels, this is a book about ecology, about the fragile interdependence of people, animals and their environment. Discuss the ways this plays out in Late Nights on Air.

15. In addition to its rewards, the canoe trip taken by Harry, Eleanor, Gwen, and Ralph has its share of ordeals, including Harry and Eleanor getting lost, Gwen’s encounter with a bear, and Ralph’s fate. Discuss the various ways in which the characters are de-stabilized and reoriented in the course of the trip, and how the trip impacts upon their lives later.

16. Dido is so different in her relationship with Harry than she is with Eddy. What is it about the two men — and what is it about Dido — that cause such different responses?

17. This is a book where couples are often frustrated and love is not reciprocated or is cut off too soon — Harry and Dido, Dido and Eddy (a relationship that endures but on unknown terms), Eleanor and Ralph. Perhaps unexpectedly, an unconventional couple comes together at the end of the book. Were you surprised? Are there hints throughout the book? Does it work for you?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2014

    Jake

    Here

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2014

    Briauna

    Now go to cutie res 4..lol

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2008

    Late Nights on Air

    I had to read Late nights on air for my book club and I was very bored out of my mind. The story really did not go anway where and the charcters were boring. By the end of the book I really didn't care what happened to the characters. If this is how this writer write I won't be reading anymore of her books.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2008

    Late Nights on Air

    I just finished read Late Nights on Air and to tell you the truth I hated it. The story was long and boring and I had a hard time staying with it. So many times I was wanted to throw this book in the trash. Very Disappointing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2008

    GREAT, MAGNIFICENT STORYTELLING

    Elizabeth Hay is one great storyteller. She has created a collection of flawed, very human characters with only a few, precise words. Being the northern city of Yellowknife one of them. I cannot praised this marvelous, wondrous novel enough. A must read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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