Have you ever started a book and thought, "I don't like these characters or the way this story seems to be developing." only to keep reading and by the time you arrived at the last page thought, "Wow, that was a good book"? This happened to me as I read the 2007 Giller Prize winner, Late Nights on Air by the Canadian Elizabeth Hay.
I didn't much care for the characters - Harry, the washed up station manager of a radio station in Yellowknife that is soon to be replaced by a television station; self destructive Dido who has fled her affair with her father-in-law and now is torn between two other men; Gwen, the newcomer, so unsure of herself, but assigned to learn about radio broadcasting by covering the late night shift; Eleanor, lonely and wondering if it is time to leave Yellowknife; Eddy, the charming, but secret misogynist; Ralph, "a man of books and pockets, and pockets stretched out of shape by books."
Disturbing emotional and sexual upheavals and undercurrents in the first part of the book almost made me quit reading. I persevered and came to realize Elizabeth Hay's power to cast a spell.
The characters interact against a backdrop of a great change that may come to the Northwest Territories. 1975 is the year that a judge is making an inquiry into the proposed construction of a gas pipeline across the Canadian North that would threaten the environment and the native way of life, the year before a television station begins to broadcast in Yellowknife, the year before great changes come to the area.
Inspired by a radio drama of John Hornby, who traveled throughout the Northwest Territory before starving to death, Gwen, Harry, Eleanor and Ralph embark on a canoe journey to retrace Hornby's route. In the descriptions of this journey, the whole area becomes another character in the book. The book becomes a meditation on the fragility of life and love, and fighting against the odds.
Later, Gwen is musing on the fate of a forlorn fox who has invaded her urban neighborhood. "The phrase that came to her mind was 'the long and sudden of it.' We go on and on through the long months of our lives until we hit a sudden moment that stuns us...By the battle-scarred look of him, he'd been fighting against the odds for a long while...The fox had seemed magical to her. A creature from one world passing through another."
How perfectly she sums up this lovely book.