Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
Every Lost Country by Steven Heighton is a captivating, compelling read. It’s a book that focuses on politics and international relations, and explores how individual people are both affected by, and can themselves affect grand political issues.
The story takes place on the Nepalese-Tibetan border where Wade Lawson, a mountaineer, is making his final attempt to summit an unclimbed mountain. He’s assembled a team in a remote part of Nepal next to the border with the goal of summiting and filming the success. A couple of days before the climb, however, a group of Tibetan refugees try to flee across the border near the expedition’s base camp and are caught by Chinese soldiers. The soldiers then also arrest two members of Lawson’s team, his doctor and filmmaker, for trying to help the refugees.
The story then splits and follows both Lawson’s expedition and the refugee party. Lawson continues his attempt to climb the mountain, despite critical losses to his team and international attention on the kidnapping of his Canadian doctor and filmmaker. Meanwhile, the refugee party escapes from the soldiers, but then struggles to survive while they make their way back to the Nepalese border and try again to cross before being recaptured.
Based on a real incident of Tibetan refugees trying to cross over into Nepal in 2006, Heighton weaves a fiction that is highly conscious of its politics. It is an exploration of the plight of refugees as well as those who go out of their way to help people, particularly those who feel an obligation to dedicate their lives to something bigger than themselves.
The writing is evocative and graceful. The book has a kind of sensitivity about it, and is vivid in its descriptions of physical exertion and emotional stamina. It delves into the personal tolls that each journey takes on each individual. For this reason, the story becomes much more interesting - though the party of refugees are travelling together, it is a different journey for each person. Though the numerous important characters can be initially difficult to keep track of, it is their various perspectives that provide great depth to the story. The focus on mental strain and fatigue throughout these journeys are especially fascinating to read and very well written.
Though Every Lost Country doesn’t move particularly quickly and can take a while to get into, there is enough action to maintain both tension and momentum. There are small segments that are written in the second person and don’t really work, but the majority of the book flows well. Overall, the story is engaging.
The plight of Tibetan refugees is not a new one, however, with the backdrop of the current refugee crisis, this plight is given new context. Every Lost Country is a highly relevant story: it provides humanity and understanding for those who are seeking refuge as well as for those who are trying to help. It’s a book that’s an important reflection on our current state of the world.
Every Lost Country is published by Vintage Canada.