In 2006, Tibetan border guards shot at a group of "splitists" attempting to cross the border into Nepal illegally. A 17-year-old nun was killed immediately and a 23-year-old man is said to have died in custody. Unlike most such events at too many border crossings throughout the world, this was witnessed through an independent lens: A European cameraman attached to a mountaineering expedition videoed and posted it to the Internet, along with a report that the mountaineers debated suppressing news of the incident in favour of continuing their climb.
Like Joseph Conrad (whom he increasingly resembles in important aspects), Steven Heighton takes the bare bones of an event occurring on the borderlines of most of our geographical, political and moral experiences, and refashions it into Every Lost Country, a novel that offers readers more than "the big ideas and beautiful language" that The New York Times praised in his previous novel, Afterlands, one of the best books published anywhere in 2005.
Yes, Heighton's ideas are once again big and difficult - What does it mean to behave responsibly in a world fractured and fragmented by political and personal irresponsibilities, foreign and domestic? - and his language continues to grow in beauty.
But there's a quantum leap in insecurity, social complexity and intensity of the storytelling between his second and third novels. There are no longueurs: Every page, minor character and plot twist matters. Every Lost Country not only rivets readers to their seats, it challenges them to rethink the David-and-Goliath inequalities of this new millennium.
In the novel, Lewis Book, MD, a former Médecins san frontières physician adrenalin-addicted to practising emergency medicine in the riskiest of situations, tries to reset his broken family life by bringing his delinquent teenage daughter, Sophie, along on Wade Lawson's attempt to be the first to reach the summit of Mount Kyatruk.
Lawson hopes the ascent will erase previous failures and restore his much-diminished reputation among the alpha journalists of Gripped magazine and other climbers' bibles. The two Books, and Lawson and Amaris, Lawson's cinematographer and lover, form a Canadian quartet whose distinctive voices, combative personalities and conflicted inner lives generate inevitable dissonances and unexpected harmonies when the doctor rushes downhill across disputed territory to assist would-be refugees wounded by a Chinese border patrol. He is arrested, Amaris is captured while filming the conflict and Sophie sets off hours later on a lonely journey to either rescue her father or succumb to a common fate; Lawson turns his back and keeps his climb going with undiminished willpower and flagging resources.
Raddled by the effects of oxygen deprivation at high altitude and rattled by Chinese allegations of spying (backed up by "evidence" found in a journal Sophie inadvertently drops on her quest to join her father), Book and Amaris co-operate with the Tibetan prisoners in an unplanned jailbreak, and then an arduous trek back to Nepal while being tracked by helicopters and pursued by a highly mobile and fully equipped military unit. Every Lost Country is more un-put-downable than many escape tales because the action and reactions of the pursued and the pursuers never break faith with reality: Everything that happens is within the limits of the possible and could well happen to anybody who engages in defiant behaviour in out-of-the-way places.
Heighton has said in interviews that being a true rebel means becoming "unabashedly uncool - an aesthete, devoted to the old pursuit of truth and beauty in artistic form." His personal "rebelliousness" makes him an unrelenting reviser and his own toughest critic: How many other novelists in this country (those not named Barbara Gowdy, Caroline Adderson or Michael Winter) choose words so carefully or narrative strategies with such intelligence? Every Lost Country tells and retells its story from multiple and shifting points of view, a technique now so commonplace that few seem to remember that it was Joseph Conrad who revived this 18th-century device as a way of banishing the intrusive and repugnant presence of the author as moral authority.
Henry James lauded Conrad for his unrivalled capacity to "do a thing that shall make it undergo the most doing" - that is, to make "his pages differ in texture" by freeing them from all "ungoverned" words, thoughts, actions, sensations. The thin air, arid earth, winding paths, whirling helicopter blades, feverish sweats, fresh wounds, caked blood, torn clothing, aching muscles and anguish of Every Lost Country are simultaneously shockingly real and terrifyingly mannered. Heighton creates a poetry of people in violent motion that has nothing in common with what James called the bestselling "porcupine[s]of extravagant yet abnormally relaxed bristles" of Conrad's era, and everything to do with his own humane plea for a " laissez-faire and laissez-aller" based on the recognition that we are inevitably bound to cross one another's paths, and that these paths belong to all of us and not to old masters of new imperialisms.
Contributing reviewer T.F. Rigelhof's Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better, and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984 has just been published.