By Elizabeth Hay. McClelland & Stewart, 376 pp, $32.99, hardcover
Much of Elizabeth Hay's third novel takes place in Yellowknife or on the tundra beyond; harsh terrain and the chill of death are often present. Yet this is one warm story, thanks to characters so vital it's as if they're talking to us over java at the Strange Range café.
The year is 1975, and the North is in transition. Judge Thomas Berger is conducting his landmark inquiry into the Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline, the initial stirrings of First Nations activism are afoot, and Yellowknife is about to get its first television station. This, understandably, has unnerved the small but dedicated band of CBC Radio staffers who are at the novel's heart–but not so much as the unexpected arrival of Dido Paris, whose name is the only false note in this otherwise true-to-life tale.
Hired off the street by a departing bureaucrat, the pale and curvaceous Paris inflames the hearts of interim manager Harry Boyd (alcoholic, but a beacon of integrity), technician Eddy Fitzgerald (American, ambitious, and abusive), and receptionist Eleanor Dew (stoic, spiritual, and perhaps bisexual). Others–the wandering innocent Gwen Symon, the bookish photographer Ralph Cody–arrive in their midst, and their twinings are this novel's gist.
Hay (A Student of Weather) lays out their linked stories in gentle, memoirlike prose. The Berger Inquiry is a recurring motif, and Hay–a former Yellowknife resident herself–has taken her cue from the beloved jurist: events proceed at an unhurried pace, and everyone gets as long as they need to have their say.
Within this mellow structure, however, strangeness intrudes: the land looms large; cold itself is a character; people disappear. Paris breaks Boyd's heart; Cody wins Dew's, then drowns on the last day of an almost mystical canoe expedition. "Where they had been was so vast, and Ralph's death so unforeseen, that their sense of the ordinary died with him," Hay writes. "The normal grasses of life never quite grew back."
And yet there is healing. The perfect world falls apart, and another, only slightly cracked, rises up. More deaths intrude, past disasters presage discoveries, and things change–but they continue, beautifully.