The premise of Steven Heighton's latest novel aims for that rare sweet spot between Graham Greene and C.S. Lewis's Narnia chronicles. It begins on a dark beach in Cyprus, where a Greek-Canadian soldier and a journalist from Istanbul, who have just had sex after hooking up at a hotel bar, are set upon by a group of punchy Turkish soldiers on patrol. After the pair struggle, then flee, Elul, the journalist, is shot from behind. Believing her dead, Elias scrambles under a barbed-wire fence – our de facto wardrobe – and into the uninhabited city of the island's "dead zone."
Except it's not uninhabited. In Varosha, Elias, who came to Cyprus on trauma leave after his recent tour of Kandahar ended with the controversial killing of innocent villagers, encounters members of a Greek Cypriot village, some of whose residents have lived a life virtually frozen in time since the Republic collapsed in the wake of a 1974 CIA-sponsored coup.
Which is not to say they're sitting around fanning themselves with their lapels or grooving to 8-track tapes, though Kaiti, who arrived a few years ago pregnant with twins (that the boy is named Aslan heightens the Narnia-esqueness of things), later jokes that the dusty clothes lining the shelves of the village's abandoned stores are finally coming back into fashion.
Varosha might seem far-fetched if it weren't real. A fixture on the Internet's decrepitude-porn sites (Abandoned Places That Will Blow Your Mind!, etc.), it's a beguiling setting for a novel, and Heighton, clearly inspired by this "topiary city made of vines, wild grape and bougainvillea" does it justice through frequent, evocative description.
Kaiti and Roland, an ex-UN peacekeeper who still sports his long-faded uniform, assume care of the injured Elias, whose plan to lay low then slip away is dashed when the shocking news arrives: Not only is Elul alive and recovering in hospital, but official word on the incident is that he raped her, then drowned in the sea after Turkish officers heroically intervened.
Colonel Erkan Kaya concocted that bit of fake news, but without malice – a mode anathema to his personality – in the hopes of minimizing the damage to all the reputations at stake, not just his soldiers'. An easygoing sensualist, Kaya has maintained his plum, absurdly unchallenging position at the Palm Beach Officers' Club since 2001 thanks to a one-two punch of charisma and affability. He's not only aware of the villagers' existence, he's on friendly terms with them. In fact, his live-and-let-live credo means he'll happily tolerate anyone who doesn't try to come between him and his cigars, gourmet meals, tennis games and trysts with touring belly dancers.
As Elias settles into the rhythms of village life, and works on wooing the guarded Kaiti with the Leonard Cohen tunes he bangs out on guitar, the novel switches between his and Kaya's perspectives. Though the two men barely interact, they share two things in common: Neither is a natural fit for the army, and both ended up there as a result of daddy issues – Elias joined to please his, an ex-soldier who then promptly died of cancer; Kaya to avoid going into his father's electronics business.
Kaya is the novel's most inspired creation. (Here's a man who considers dynamiting two hotels so he can extend the sunlight hours on his strip of beach.) Regrettably, though, his dimensionality seems to have been achieved at the expense of others'. The first of several cartoonish characters is Captain Polat, who comes to Kaya as an earnest young recruit only to become obsessed with routing Elias out of the dead zone. So much so that after a Charles Atlas-style reinvention and promotion to colonel during a one-year stint on the Turkish-Syrian border, he returns to Varosha with the kind of relentless single-mindedness that makes Terminator 's T-1000 look lackadaisical.
His equivalent in the village is Sergeant Stratis Kourakis, a humourless member of the Greek Special Forces who views himself as the community's sole, true protector. He's one of the originals, yet four largely peaceful decades in the village have done nothing to dull the vociferousness of his mission "to hate purely the enemies of one's blood."
Then there's the "goaty"-smelling Neoklis, who, with his "bucktooth-yellow smile," jutting ears, bowl-cut hair, pulled-high pants and pocket full of chess pieces is the worst kind of parody of a man with intellectual disabilities. (Why his parents, the community elders, would subject him to a bowl cut is beyond imaging.)
Annie Proulx has blurbed that The Nightingale Won't Let You Sleep is "a rich and disturbing literary thriller." But despite some frenetic, bookended action, its plot and pace are far too languid to qualify for thriller status. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. A first-rate poet and formidable short-story writer, Heighton's distractibility results in some fine textural writing. And there's an appealing, Borgesian touch to Myrto, the village librarian whose personal project is to catalogue its books by "essence."
These aren't enough, however, to offset both a tendency to explainy-ness and our sense that Heighton is uncertain about his goals here. The Nightingale Won't Let You Sleep ultimately feels like a concept, and a character, in search of a novel.
Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries.