Late Nights on Air, by Elizabeth Hay

late nightsIn my third year of my undergraduate degree in French, I thought it would be interesting to take a class in Quebec literature. I had taken a lot of ‘classic’ French lit courses up until that point, covering such works as Madame Bovary and Germinal and I figured it was time I connected with Canadian francophone writers. It was in this class that I decided that with few exceptions, Canadian literature (both anglophone and francophone) is boring. I had had my suspicions before taking the Quebec lit course, having struggled through a few dull Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood novels. But it wasn’t until the Quebec literature class that it dawned on me: Canadians are boring! Case in point: the first book we read in class was called Le Survenant,  about a family that owns a farm and one day a stranger shows up to help. Quite seriously, nothing else happens and there are some mind-numbing pages describing farm chores. I still remember actually being angry at the book for being so utterly dull, and this was more than ten years ago! I have since been hesitant to pick up novels by Canadian writers and will only do so on the strong recommendation of friends.

It is perhaps not surprising then that I left Late Nights on Air on my bookshelf, unread, for a good four years before finally picking it up recently. I’m not sure what compelled me to actually pluck it out of my extensive library of unread books, but it wasn’t without some apprehension. As it turns out, Late Nights on Air is a bit boring in that nothing really happens per se. There is no zombie apocalypse; no disasters or vivid love affairs or dramatic turn of events. It is really a simple story about four people who work for a local radio station in Yellowknife. It is about how they interact with each other and with the remoteness of their location and the harshness of the weather. Bored yet? For some reason I wasn’t. I actually really enjoyed this novel, despite that in addition to being uneventful it is also pretty bleak. I guess this should not surprise me as that’s the other thing about a lot of Canadian lit: it’s often horribly depressing (the epitome might be David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children). If ever I were uncertain about whether living in the North would be a good idea, Late Nights on Air set my mind straight on that point. Do I recommend this book? Yes, with some reservation. It did, after all, win a Giller Prize so it’s worth a try. I believe I may have hated this book had I read it ten years ago. Do we get more boring with age? Is it easier to relate to dull characters the older we get? If so, I’d say this a book for those in their mid-30s and over.

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