Winner of the 2007 Giller Prize

There’s been much moaning about this year’s Booker longlist from those ploughing through it.  I never summon up enough enthusiasm to read the whole list but I do watch out for any Canadiana.  So this year in the absence of any Canadian nominee (a fact I find incredible in a list the chairman claims to be “geographically balanced”), I looked elsewhere.  No better place to start than with the 2007 Giller prize winner.

The novel is set in the Northwest Territories of Canada during a time of change, the mid-1970’s: a time when the radio stations were threatened by television, and the northern landscape, by the proposed MacKenzie valley gas pipeline.  Escaping from a failed television career, Harry Boyd returns to Yellowknife to run a small radio station.  He hires two women, the wonderfully confident Dido, and the painfully shy Gwen. 

It appears that there’s a lot of the author in Gwen, who is hopeless at broadcasting.  She is quickly relegated to the late night spot where in isolation she is free to experiment, to learn her trade.  Dido, however, is a star from the offset, attracting the audiences, the men all falling in love with her at first, second or third sight. The first half of the novel is set in or around the radio station with the rivalries and the petty jealousies between the two women subtly on display.  With Dido in the ascendant, always, seemingly indestructable. Until she takes up with Eddie and then her vulnerability begins to show. 

Hay explores the fraility of the human heart gently and sensitively through the lives of her three main characters, with the subsidiary characters populating the pages to explore similar issues from different angles. They are rounded out, their stories entirely plausible and, in cases, quite saddening.  The frozen North is an isolated place and people can be lonely, either in or out of a relationship.

The landscape is not simply a backdrop.  As four friends undertake a trek across the frozen landscape, from Yellowknife to Ptarmigan Lake, the theme of human fraility and survival moves beyond the purely emotional.  Lack of preparation or a false sense of security can swiftly result in the catastrophic.  At the same time, this beautiful Arctic landscape is vulnerable, a DIdo, easily crumpled by the selfishness and inattentiveness of man.

The novel is a beautiful read.  Quiet and insistent.  Voices travelling through the air like radio waves, voices that are heard a long time after finishing the novel.  It’s not a page-turner in the traditional sense.  Hay takes her time telling the stories of her characters and landscapes.  The characters, true to life and engaging, held my attention in the first half; the landscape in the second, even though there isn’t much narrative drive.  Whether Hay recognised this herself and attempted to insert it by the use of foreshadowing, I’m not sure.  Time and time again, foreboding hints of disasters and losses to come are inserted at the beginning of each section in what seems to be an effort to pull the reader through.  Whether this betrays a lack of confidence in herself as writer, or myself as reader, I’m not sure, but so frequent was her use of the device that I became quite irritated.  It was a clumsy anomaly from an otherwise gracious and intelligent pen.  I questioned Hay about it at a recent book signing.    She explained that she wanted to convey a sense of time: that characters cannot only be placed in the present; the past tugs at us all as does the future which is impossible to resist.  Seen in that light, her insistent use of foreshadowing has its logic.  However, this reader would have preferred lighter penstrokes.