This book won the Giller Prize this year, and I think (after some reflection) it was deserved, although I’m still overwhelmed that Cloud of Bone, which I think is a better novel than most of the shortlist, wasn’t nominated. But I’ll lay aside my bitterness over that enough to admit that Late Nights on Air is a beautifully written and haunting novel.
Set in Yellowknife in the 1970s, the action of the novel centres around the small local CBC radio station. I’ve never before read a novel set largely in a radio station, and having spent much of my life working or volunteering in a small radio station I enjoyed some of the details of the setting. The technology is of an era I remember — the tedious splicing of reel-to-reel tapes to edit an interview, the use of cart decks for promos and IDs, etc — and I enjoyed those little details that were so well rendered.
The larger setting is the Canadian North, during the time of a national inquiry into whether an oil and gas pipeline should be built across the Arctic — a debate that brings to the fore many questions about environment and the rights of aboriginal people. The novel’s main characters are all white people, transplanted to the North from various places in Canada and the rest of the world, and are all interested observers of the political issues of the day — as they would be, working in radio.
But the novel is not just about a vast landscape or the huge political issues that affect it, but about very intimate relations between the small group of people who work together in the radio station. The shifting viewpoints, moving among four or five different characters, and the rather distant and restrained narrative voice, kept me from getting deeply involved in this novel right away. I enjoyed the setting and the beautiful writing but wasn’t strongly engaged with what was happening in the lives of the characters. But they crept up on me, and by the time tragedy strikes as four of the characters go on a challenging wilderness canoe trip, I genuinely felt that tragedy.
This book is a slow starter, but it’s a beautiful read and definitely rewards the reader’s persistance.