Tag Archives: Late Nights on Air

Five Canadian Novels I’ve Read

I follow a couple of Canadian bloggers whose recommendations often hit the spot for me – Naomi at Consumed by Ink, in particular. Frustratingly, many of the books she reviews aren’t Cover imagepublished here in the UK. I know I can get them via Amazon but I’ve sworn off them until they treat their staff like human beings. I do have hopes of visiting Canada one of these days and it’s clear I’ll need at least one extra suitcase for the trip home. In the meantime, here are five favourite Canadian novels I’ve managed to get my hands on, two with links to full reviews.

Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air is set in the summer of 1975. Harry has returned from his Toronto television job with his tail between his legs and falls for the seductive voice of Dido who occupies the late-night slot. Dido is the object of a great deal of quiet desire at Yellowknife’s radio station staffed by a collection of misfits and blow-ins. Nothing much happens in the novel aside from a summer canoe trip with four of the characters but it draws you in with its wistful tone and gorgeous descriptions of the Canadian wilderness. Hay acquaints her readers intimately with her cast of mildly eccentric characters so that by the end of her novel you’ve come to care about them deeply. It’s an absolute gem, recognised as such by the Giller judges who awarded it their prize in 2007.

The Republic of Love is my favourite of the late lamented Carol Shield’s novels. It’s a thoroughly satisfying love story in which Fay – a folklorist with a particular interest in mermaids and impossibly high romantic expectations based on her ideas about her parents’ relationship – and Tom – a talk-show host with what can only be charitably described as a chequered romantic past – try to find a way to be together. The schlock potential here is high but Shields is far too sharp an observer to fall in to that trap with the result that the book is both wry and touching. Not a prize winner, but an absolute delight.Cover image

Margaret Atwood is arguably the best known of Canada’s contemporary novelists. The Heart Goes Last may not be the obvious choice from her prodigious list of novels but it’s the one that brought me back to her work after a long break. In the nearish future a homeless couple signs up to a project in which they alternate a month in prison with a month in a comfortable house then one of them becomes obsessed by their counterparts and embroiled in a plan that will blow the lid off the scheme’s increasingly sinister goings on. Atwood is the consummate storyteller, slinging well-aimed barbs as she reels her readers into this tale of suburban utopia gone horribly wrong. What took me by surprise was how funny it is – almost to the point of being a caper – but lest you think this is dystopia-lite, Atwood’s novel has some very serious points to make.

Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life is about two very different women bound together by their love of music in a friendship that endures through love lost and won; marriage, arranged and otherwise; and raising children in the most difficult circumstances. Mahsa is the child of an Afghan woman and an American man who wins a scholarship to study music in Montreal. Katherine, the child of a white mother and a Chinese father, carves out a place for herself, playing piano in a jazz band, pursuing music, love and family with a passionate determination. When these two meet, an indissoluble bond is formed. Music is the breath of life to Katherine and Mahsa, running through their story like a constant yet ever-changing refrain. There’s so much to admire about this novel, not least Echlin’s beautifully polished writing.

Cover imageWith great wit and humanity, Rohinton Mistry’ A Fine Balance explores the effects of the state of emergency on the lives of ordinary people in 1970s India through a cast of vividly drawn characters. Determinedly clinging to her independence, recently widowed Dina sets up as a seamstress, recruiting two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om, and taking in Maneck, a student, as a lodger. What begins out of economic necessity eventually becomes an arrangement between friends, each with a demon to defeat: Dina must conquer her fear of losing her rent-controlled flat to help Ishvar and Om who in turn must cope with the fallout from stepping outside the caste system. Even the privileged Maneck is troubled by his father’s apparent rejection. When Ishvar and Om are caught up in the government’s cruelly administered policies their unlikely family is first threatened, then torn apart.

Any books by Canadian authors you’d like to recommend?

Blasts from the Past: Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay (2007)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

Way back in my bookselling days I remember being given a proof of Elizabeth Hay’s Garbo Laughs. It was pleasant enough but didn’t make a huge impression on me. Years later, now working on a magazine, I was sent a copy of Late Nights on Air and became completely enthralled by it. It’s about a group of people operating a radio station in a Canadian backwater which may sound a little dull but Hay’s writing and characterisation are such that it’s utterly entrancing.

In the summer of 1975, Harry has returned with his tail between his legs from his television job in Toronto and falls for the seductive voice of Dido who has the late night slot. Dido is the object of a great deal of quiet desire at Yellowknife’s radio station staffed by a collection of misfits and blow-ins. Nothing much happens in the novel aside from a summer canoe trip with four of the characters but it draws you in with its wistful tone and gorgeous descriptions of the Canadian wilderness. It’s a book suffused with a quiet loneliness and longing. Hay intimately acquaints her readers with her cast of mildly eccentric characters so that by the end of her novel you’ve come to care deeply about what happens to them. It’s an absolute gem, recognised as such by the Giller judges who awarded it their prize in 2007.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay: One big happy family

Cover imageElizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air ranks alongside Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved as one of the finest contemporary novels I’ve read. Notable for its beautiful descriptions of the natural world, Hay’s novel shows a similar perception in its portrayal of relationships as Hustvedt’s. It’s one of those novels I pressed into the hands of friends and family after I read it. Unsurprisingly, then, I was eagerly anticipating His Whole Life, which turned out to be an equally nuanced coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of the 1995 referendum on the separation of Quebec from Canada and its aftermath.

Jim is ten years old when the novel opens as he, his Canadian mother and his American father make their way from New York City to Canada where his uncle and aunt have a lakeside house. For Jim it’s an welcoming place: he’s reunited with Duke, the ancient dog he adores and escapes the opprobrium that follows him around the school playground. For Nan, his sharp-tongued mother, it’s an annual homecoming making years of living in a marriage which is all but coming apart bearable. For George, it feels like a prison, uncomfortable and unsettling. When her brother and sister-in-law are killed in a car crash nine months later, Nan decides to go back to the lake telling George that she will stay until Duke dies having one lost dog on her conscience already, and takes Jim with her. Shortly after they’ve settled in a piratical figure arrives, reminding Jim of his beloved Treasure Island. Lulu is Nan’s dearest childhood friend, unseen for years and now in the midst of the latest in a seemingly endless series of spats with her brother who runs the family farm. An idyllic summer begins for Jim in which he has the company of not one but two dogs and the devoted attention of two women who endlessly chew the fat about everything, from Lulu’s disinheritance to the question of Québécois independence. Hay’s novel follows Jim and his mother over seven difficult years as the bond between them deepens.

‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’ asks ten-year-old Jim from the back seat of the family car. This is the question that will recur throughout Hay’s richly complex and intimate portrait of an extended family, each time revealing more about its characters. It’s a novel deeply conscious of the past and the far-reaching consequences of our actions, nostalgic almost elegiac in tone with the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation at its heart. Hay has a beautifully honed turn of phrase: ‘Nan has once told Jim how restful it was to be immersed in a past that was over’; Nan thinks of her young son ‘What a moody stripling he was, Christopher Robin as Job’; Lulu and her brother are ‘always fighting leftover fights’. Jim is a memorable character, too mature for his years as the children of troubled marriages so often are, used to overhearing too many adult conversations. If I have a criticism it is that the splits within the family were a little too neatly mirrored by the political divide between the two sides of the referendum question but Canadian readers may beg to differ. Altogether a thoroughly absorbing and thought-provoking novel, beautifully expressed. I have hopes that it will snag the Baileys Prize judges’ attention.

Books to Look Out For in March 2016

Cover imageHope springs eternal as we edge towards the beginning of spring in the UK. With winter a bit of a non-event for half of the country, I’m wondering if we’ll notice its arrival at all. Plenty to keep you occupied indoors if it turns out to be another washout, though. It’s an all female line-up for March. Two of my choices are by writers whose books I’ve already read and enjoyed and three are new to me. I’ll begin with the one I’m most looking forward to, Elizabeth Hay’s His Whole Life. Late Nights on Air is one of those quietly beautiful books that I’d loved to have seen piled up on bookshop tables. Alone in the Classroom didn’t quite match it for me but I have hopes for this one which follows a young boy over the few years which will shape his adult life. It’s described by the publishers as ‘an unconventional coming of age story as only Elizabeth Hay could tell it. It draws readers in with its warmth, wisdom, its vivid sense of place, its searching honesty, and nuanced portrait of the lives of one family and those closest to it’ listing many of the qualities I admired in Late Nights on Air.

Way back in my early blogging days I posted a review of Judith Hermann’s Alice, a lovely, gentle novella, beautifully written. Her new one, Where Love Begins, sounds very different. Stella leads a prosaically happy life. Because her husband travels for work, she and her daughter are often alone in the house. One day, a stranger knocks on her door and asks to come in saying he only wants to talk to her. She sends him away but he persists day after day, undeterred when she tries to confront him. Described by the publishers as ‘a delicately wrought, deeply sinister novel’ it sounds riveting.Cover image

Of the three novels I’ve not yet read, Anna Raverat’s Lover sounds the most enticing to me. Kate’s marriage begins to unravel when she discovers her husband’s dalliance with another woman. Work offers no comfort as her boss becomes increasingly demanding. Amidst this turmoil, Kate’s priority is to protect her daughters but her life is in tatters. ‘Told with warmth and lightness, even as it also mines real depths of sorrow, Lover is a novel about the hand that life can deal you, and how to play it with grace. Beautifully observed, full of wisdom, poetry and humour, it asks what it means to be true in all things, and in so doing, how to live’ say the publishers, which makes it sound like a nice piece of intelligent, absorbing fiction.

I still haven’t got around to reading Deborah Levy’s Man Booker shortlisted Swimming Home, much rated for its writing, I gather. Her new novel, Hot Milk, ‘explores the violently primal bond between mother and daughter’ according to its publishers. It’s set in Spain where the daughter has taken her mother to an alternative clinic in the hope of discovering a cure for her paralysis, which may or may not be psychologically induced. While her mother undergoes a series of odd treatments, the daughter becomes caught up in ‘the seductive mercurial games of those around her’. That synopsis isn’t entirely up my street but Levy has been praised by so many people whose opinions I trust that its seems worth investigating.

Cover imageOttessa Moshfegh’s Eileen had already caught my eye then I read a review by Naomi over at Consumed by Ink – it was published in Canada a little while ago. The eponymous Eileen is a disturbed young woman caring for her alcoholic father and working as a secretary in a boys’ prison. She passes her dull days fantasising about escape and her nights and weekends shoplifting and stalking one of the prison guards. The arrival of an attractive counsellor sparks what Eileen thinks is a friendship but proves to be her undoing in what the publishers call a ‘Hitchcockian twist’. Naomi describes the novel as ‘delightfully morbid’, a book she couldn’t put down, which is more than enough to persuade me. Great jacket, too!

That’s it for March hardbacks. As ever if you want to know more, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis or, in the case of Eileen, Naomi’s review. Paperbacks shortly…