Steven Heighton confronts big issues—personal and political—throughout his writing. His latest novel, Every Lost Country (Knopf Canada), illustrates the complexities of human endeavour and motivation via a literary suspense thriller that takes place in a contested part of the world, Chinese-occupied Tibet.
As Heighton notes at the beginning of the book, its opening pages are based on an actual event: “an incident that occurred In September 2006 in the Nangpa La, a high pass on the border of Nepal and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.”
Wikipedia supplies more information: In September, 2006, a group of unarmed Tibetan refugees attempting to escape Tibet were fired upon by Chinese soldiers and a seventeen-year-old nun was killed. China originally denied that anything had happened until footage shot by a Romanian photographer on the scene was smuggled out of the area. Several of the refugees were arrested by the Chinese and are still missing.
The rest of the novel is Heighton’s invention. It opens with a group of Canadians climbing a mountain in Nepal very near the Tibet border. The expedition is headed by a disgraced mountaineer named Wade Lawson and part of the novel concerns his desire to restore his reputation. He’s accompanied by some Canadian climbers and assisted by Nepalese sherpas.
But Heighton is more interested in three other participants in the climb. Lewis Book is the team’s doctor. He’s a figure who throws himself into the world’s hotspots, driven to help even at the risk of neglecting his family. His teenage daughter, Sophie, has come along to reconnect with her too-absent parent. Finally, Amaris is a filmmaker of Chinese heritage, adopted from Vietnam by Canadians. She’s documenting the expedition.
A few pages into the novel, the climbing party witnesses a group of Tibetan refugees fleeing to the Nepalese border but before they can reach safety, they come under fire from the Chinese soldiers pursuing them. Book dashes into Tibet to aid them, followed by Amaris, camera in hand.
Sophie watches as the group is taken into custody by the soldiers and impulsively follows them over the border and into danger. Most of the novel concerns the trio’s attempt to return to Nepal, accompanied by the Tibetan refugees.
Heighton provides a range of richly-drawn characters, not only with the Westerners but also the Tibetans. He deflates the Western stereotype of Tibetans as some kind of stoic pacifists with his hot-blooded gunslingers. Most intriguing is Choden, a nun peering through her thick-lensed glasses, expressing her pragmatic view of the situation.
(There’s also Zapa, a yak who makes a late appearance in the story but is vital to the escapees’ safety. The reader ends up rooting for Zapa as well.)
Heighton cuts this narrative with the exploits of the climbing expedition, now reduced in numbers. Despite his inexperienced companions and the very serious threat of severe weather, Lawson recklessly pushes towards the mountain’s summit.
Unfortunately, this thread gets lost as the novel progresses. Heighton spends much less space on it and so it’s overwhelmed by the Tibetan story, which is inherently compelling. As a consequence, the reader doesn’t spend enough time with the climbing story or its characters (which really does have its own drama).
The mountain-climber thread is largely forgotten as the main trio makes a last mad dash to the safety of Nepal with the Tibetan refugees (and Zapa). With Chinese soldiers in pursuit, this makes for some gripping reading if a little too long for a single, fast-paced episode.
Elsewhere, some plot-lines get misplaced, in particular a taped confession made by one of the characters that seems like the start of something important but goes nowhere very far.
Pacing and structural issues aside, Every Lost Country is a beautiful and compelling novel. Heighton’s evocative prose captures the forbidding majesty of the terrain. And he addresses important questions about loyalty, selfishness, and the limits of altruism.
Heighton deals with similarly big themes in his poetry. Consider Patient Frame (2010), his first collection of poetry since The Address Books (2004). He stakes out conflicted terrain with its very first poem.
In a section of the book dubbed “Credos,” “Another of the Just: Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, My Lai, 1968,” confronts one of the darkest episodes of the American war in Vietnam. Tellingly, Heighton doesn’t focus on Lieutenant William Calley, the man in charge of the massacre, but another real-life figure, one so shocked by the American-produced carnage that he ordered his “door-gunners/to fire on any comrade who’d resumed that riot/of infanticide, mob rape….”
The depiction of a pivotal moment, the decision to intervene, transgress, or confront, appears elsewhere in the collection. “Edith Swan-Neck” adapts an episode from the 11th Century Saxon Chronicles. Commanded by the victors to identify the corpse of King Harald after the Battle of Hastings, his lover lies and indicates another man.
And the speaker of “You Know Who You Are” accuses an abusive priest:
… sir, you did zero
but soil other choirboys in your charge, and coyly
charm, flirt with the mothers, eventually
passing some pensive months in minimum….
Choose any poem in these pages and the reader can’t help but be pushed from any sort of complacency.
In the volume’s last section, Heighton tackles translations of poems by Borges, Apollinaire, Neruda, Horace, and others. By taking on such heavyweights, the poet proves to be as bold in his engagements with literary giants as he is with his choice of subject matter.
With these two books, Steven Heighton again demonstrates that he is one of Canada’s most ambitious writers.
Every Lost Country | Knopf Canada | 352 pages | cloth | $29.95 | ISBN #978-0307397393
Patient Frame | Anansi | 112 pages | paper | $22.95 | ISBN #978-0887849527