Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Kingston's widely acclaimed novelist and poet, Steven Heighton, has again delivered a masterpiece of fiction. An aficionado of exotic settings layered with political intrigue and conflict, Heighton sets his latest novel, The Nightingale Won't Let You Sleep, in the divided island of Cyprus. Heighton, who himself is half-Greek blends the island's Greek-Turkish conundrum into the tale of a young man seeking to escape the trauma of another distant war and his unfulfilled quest for paternal approval.
Elias Trifannis, a Canadian soldier, is recovering from PTSD in a centre in Paphos, Cyprus. The treatment is not going well. The mistake in Kandahar haunts his nights. His sense of inadequacy in meeting his father's martial expectations torture him. So he escapes to visit distant relatives in Larnaca and then ventures north into the Turkish-occupied sector near Farmagusta. There in a bar, he meets Eylül, a beautiful and headstrong Turkish journalist. The attraction nurtured by considerable doses of alcohol results in a romantic stroll along the beach adjacent to the abandoned Greek Cypriot village of Varosha—the Dead Zone. When they are far enough away from the bar, they make love.
A group of drunken Turkish soldiers have secretly followed them from the bar. They surprise the two lovers and try to rape Eylül. Elias fights them off long enough to flee with Eylül to the fence around the Dead Zone. Eylül is shot in the back and Elias, also wounded and mistakenly believing his lover dead, crawls through a breach in the barbed wire. Elias awakes to find that Varosha is not completely abandoned and he is now a prisoner of a small community of Greek returnees and expatriate misfits. The group fears that allowing Elias to leave will betray the secret of their presence in Varosha. Still weak from his wounds, Elias slowly bides his time to escape while learning the stories of his captors.
Outside the Dead Zone, the incident on the beach takes on political dimensions as the Turkish soldiers spin an artful tale. They pin the shooting of Eylül on Elias, who is believed to have drowned while swimming out to sea to escape his pursuers. Elias' Greek heritage and psychological problems are raised as proof that he is the perpetrator of the assault on Eylül, now in a coma in the hospital. It is a convenient story that the Turkish military command on the island will endorse since it removes any culpability toward its soldiers in the attempted rape and shooting of a Turkish woman.
The local commander, Colonel Erkan Kala, does not believe his soldiers for a second—he knows their characters too well. But he decides to go along with the cover-up anyway. With Elias presumed dead and Eylül not expected to recover from her wound, Kala sees no reason to stir up things. Through the considerable requisitioning of Turkish Army supplies and material, he has built for himself a comfortable beach residence near Varosha and does not want to jeopardize this idyllic sinecure by drawing unnecessary attention to himself and his men. He assumes that the incident will fade away after the death of Eylül. Kala has a second agenda. For years, he has known of the existence of the returnees to Varosha and has secretly protected them. The last thing he needs is for his superiors to order a search for a dead Greek-Canadian soldier in the Dead Zone. The problem is that he soon learns that Elias is still alive and Eylül begins to show signs of recovery.
Heighton is a skilful master of dilemma-plagued male characters. These dilemmas are not particularly original, but they are well structured, lend plausibility to the plot and hold the reader's attention. His hero, Elias, is understandably “wounded” by his experience in Afghanistan but also by his unrequited desire to earn his dying father's respect. Heighton's anti-hero, Colonel Kala, is self-centred, hedonistic and incapable of telling the truth, but nonetheless finds his interests aligned with Elias. Against them, Heighton pits Kala's nemesis, Captain Polat, a fanatical by-the-book subordinate who obsesses about launching a search of the village. And then there is Stratis Kourakis, the former Greek soldier driven by an implacable hatred of the Turks. Stratis sees himself as the defender of the village and considers Elias as a threat to its security. His rash actions eventually lead to the downfall of the Varosha returnees.
As in most of Heighton's fiction, his latest novel rests on an impeccable depiction of male virtues and vices while the female characters remain ancillary. For the most part, the male characters, despite their traumas, are virile, sexualized and capable of violence and guile. In short, this is a very masculine albeit not macho novel in the vein of old-school romantic heroism.
The Nightingale Won't Let You Sleep is published by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House Canada).