A Review of Steven Heighton's The Nightingale Won't Let You Sleep
Review by Steven W. Beattie
“I’m cursed with a poet’s ear,” says Steven Heighton about his practice writing novels. A cursory glance at the author’s full-length works of imaginative prose confirms the truth in this assessment: the writing is not merely fluid and tinged with lyricism, it is buffeted by a metaphorical quality that lends it levels of meaning and implication. On the other hand, a heavily poetic tendency can also threaten to bog down a work of prose fiction in abstraction and lugubriousness, which occurs in places throughout Heighton’s fourth novel.
Take, for instance, the following, part of an extended monologue spoken by a German deserter from a U.N. peacekeeping unit in Cyprus: “In most cases, I think, most people wish to get along without the strife, but everywhere there are a few deeply driven men who, if the conditions come up, will seize their chance. These men are either idealists or cynics, nothing in between. They intoxicate the crowd and fool them into doing the work that a bloody dream demands.”
Passages such as this – peppered throughout The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep (the very title of which is freighted with metaphoric heft) – not only feel self-indulgent and showy but, more egregiously, tend to slow down the pace of what is nominally a literary thriller. Heighton is too good a writer, and too careful a craftsman, to allow this flagging to persist however; shortly after the existential philosophizing about the venalities of men in war zones, the tone and subject matter shift abruptly to a scene of unbridled brutality involving the murder of a town mayor during a vicious act of rape.
In part, it is the modulation of tenor that allows Heighton to get away with his more rococo flourishes; unlike many other poets who seem to feel that the airy, looser format of the novel grants them license to wallow in extended flights of linguistic fancy, Heighton’s dominant mode is more stripped down and direct, especially when it comes to the violence in his story. There is savagery aplenty in these pages, and it is presented with an admirable forthrightness: war is hell and, in Heighton’s conception, never morally pristine.
The novel focuses on Elias Trifannis, a Canadian of Greek descent, who signs up for the military as a gesture of attempted reconciliation with his dying father. Elias is eventually deployed to Afghanistan where he is involved in the death of a civilian tribal elder, an incident that scars him and sends him into the care of a therapist who treats him for post-traumatic stress disorder. In an attempt to outrun the nightmares from his experience, Elias winds up in Cyprus, where a tryst with a Turkish journalist ends violently, forcing him across the border into the dead zone of Varosha, a ghost town that is home to a cabal of refugees who take him in and tend to his physical and emotional wounds.
Heighton’s chosen setting – on the border between Greece and Turkey, Europe and the Middle East – offers plenty of opportunity to investigate issues of cultural disconnection and accommodation, most especially in the person of Kaya, a Turkish military man who is content to let the colony in the ruins of Varosha persist so long as it doesn’t cause any significant blowback for him (a blissful state that is threatened by his dogged and down-the-line adjutant, Captain Polat).
The obvious precursor here is Graham Greene, whose 1955 novel The Quiet American is name-checked in the pages of Heighton’s book, though only to highlight the supposed one-dimensionality of Greene’s presentation: “I am not this Pyle guy,” Elias insists, “this innocent. Nobody is. He’s a cartoon.” Heighton goes to great lengths to ensure that the characters in his own novel rise above the status of cartoons, and more often than not he succeeds; only rarely does the impulse to underline the potential for violence and compassion in a single person veer over into sentimentality.
For the most part, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep is a powerful engagement with war and its resultant consequences and dislocations. Heighton’s cast and setting are richly evoked and his dominant theme – the search for belonging in an inimical environment – is resonant. The poet’s ear is most apparent in the suppleness of the language, which is appropriate for a landscape that has the consistency of a dream, though one that is constantly threatened by the abrupt and vicious intrusion of barbarous reality.
Steven W. Beattie is the review editor at Quill & Quire magazine, and the short-fiction columnist for The Globe and Mail. He lives in Toronto.