Lost souls converge on a remote radio outpost in the Canadian subarctic, in Hay’s meditative latest (Garbo Laughs, 2003, etc.).
The town of Yellowknife, on the shores of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, is the bleak terrain on which Hay tests the mettle of her ensemble cast, denizens of the town’s CBC affiliate. Announcer Harry is reeling from a disastrous foray into Toronto television. Receptionist Eleanor and reporter Dido fled ill-advised marriages—in beautiful, enigmatic Dido’s case, a marriage aborted by an affair with her father-in-law. Ralph, the station’s book reviewer, worships Eleanor from afar. Eddy, the engineer, has a vaguely unsavory background. Gwen has driven 3,000 miles to start her radio apprenticeship in the hinterlands. She finds on-air announcing torturous, whereas dulcet-voiced Dido is a natural. Dido is a guy magnet and smooth-talking Yank Eddy handily outstrips all rivals. When Eddy blackens her eye, Dido cohabits briefly with Harry, exploiting his neediness. Interwoven with the workplace drama is a larger controversy—Judge Berger has landed in Yellowknife, a stop on his nationwide tour to elicit citizen comment on whether to block construction of an Arctic gas pipeline across pristine Native lands and wildlife habitats. Eddy and Dido (future toasts of Los Angeles and New York) leave to pursue their exalted destinies, clearing the stage for the quieter but more absorbing lives of lesser mortals. Harry, Ralph, Eleanor and Gwen decide to retrace the route of doomed Arctic explorer John Hornby. For weeks during the summer, the foursome backpack and canoe across frigid lake country, encountering late-receding ice, unremitting daylight, mosquitoes and flies. Wildlife sightings are awe-inspiring (muskoxen, ptarmigans and a vast herd of caribou) and frightening (Gwen provokes a grizzly near Hornby’s shack). Richly observed detail of the stunted yet flourishing plant life of the northern latitudes is representative of the outwardly modest but inwardly lush lives of the characters.
The sheer ordinariness of existence in the most atypical of settings is Hay’s preferred territory, which she mines with prodigious skill.