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Fiction Literary

Late Nights on Air

by (author) Elizabeth Hay

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Apr 2008
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2008
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2009
    List Price
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2007
    List Price

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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

About the author

A former CBC Radio host, interviewer and documentary maker in Winnipeg, Yellowknife and Toronto, Elizabeth Hay spent eight years in New York where a profound longing for home propelled her to write Captivity Tales. In a poetic blend of personal narrative, biography, history and literary fiction, she tells the stories of other Canadians who came to New York and their experiences away from home. She is the author of three other books: The Only Snow in Havana, Crossing the Snow Lines, and Small Change. She lives in Ottawa.

Elizabeth Hay's profile page


  • Nominated, IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
  • Winner, Scotiabank Giller Prize

Excerpt: Late Nights on Air (by (author) Elizabeth Hay)

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 “rst 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 con—dence, 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 “rst 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, “ne 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, “icked it, and put the “ame 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 “re. 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 “ames, 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 cauli—ower 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 “gured 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.”


“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.

Editorial Reviews

#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

User Reviews

Late nights with Hay

After so much critical acclaim I was somewhat disapointed with the novel.

Full review originally posted here:

Despite really struggling to finish the novel (at page 256 to be precise), I’m happy I finished it. Broadly, I think this would make a fantastic, hilarious and beautiful movie.My main struggles with the book surrounded the following (some spoilers-beware!):

1. Pacing
When I was first recommended the book, I was told it was a history of Canadian radio in the North. The next couple people who mentioned it explained that it was a story about a canoe trip. By 256 pages in, they still haven’t left on the canoe trip. I spent the first 256 pages of the novel wondering when they were going to leave on this trip. This is further frustrating, because very few of the characters seem like the types of people who would ever embark on something of this caliber.

After finishing the book though, I think it might have been intentional. Towards the end of the book, Hay writes that in life we are often overcome by the length and suddenness of it. This book was paced this way. Hundreds of pages of anticipation, and then all the action, all at once.

2. Characters
Issue two. The people. Voicing in Late Nights hovers between first and third person. Hay launches into the book by introducing a slew of people, none of the characters are particularly likeable, and all of them cross-paths so frequently that it quickly becomes difficult to keep them straight. It kind of felt like watching a Canadian radio program reality TV show: deep down, everyone is awful, the isolation drives everyone a little crazy, and by the end of the second episode you find yourself struggling to empathize with anyone at all. Because I couldn’t keep the characters straight, I struggled connecting to any of them until the final chapters.

By the end of the book, I began to realize that there is only one character: the North. The way Hay’s narration of the characters against the background of the North is like the way Kurelek paints sole subjects against the empty prairies. Rather than having the subject become the focal point of the painting, instead it magnifies the importance and beauty of the background. Late Nights is about the North, about the space, about the hopeless unknowingness of it all. The lack of depth in the characters is integral to what Hay is trying to convey. She writes in the typical haunting solitary voice of Canadian fiction writers, her words stand out on the page like a lone tree on a horizon.

3. Sub-plots (or lack thereof)
The beginning of this book reads akin to field notes or a journal from an anthropological study. A collection of details that may or may not later be important. Each character in some way represents a different issue. For example, one works extensively on land claims issues. Initially I was frustrated by the flitting way the issues were brought up and the slowness in which they were returned to (if they were returned to at all). Later however, I wondered if this was in any way reflective of the way Northern issues are dealt with in reality. Largely it is the policy developed in the South, the huge shows in galleries that make way for change. I didn’t want to believe this subplot. I still want to believe change comes from within, that there was more to it. Ultimately I was still just left with a biography of the present day landscape, rather than any position on the myriad of issues or stories that she explained.

4. Imagery
"the slender gift of a sentence"
It’s beautiful lyricism. As with Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, Late Nights on Air almost reads like an old epic, an Odyssey or an Iliad. These incredibly beautiful poetic moments, with delicate detail, loosely knit together with other intimate moments from fuzzy characters against a grander plot about place. This is how I read the book, like seeing a magic eye. I lost the characters, focused on the details, and out of the ether, this intense hidden story of the North emerged.

This would be a great screenplay.

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