The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep by Steven Heighton. Hamish Hamilton. 2017.
Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.
It’s worth revisiting the cliché all style and no substance. It refers to an overstated buildup that proves to be unwarranted. Steven Heighton’s fourth novel is anything but. The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep builds organically, to a multi-faceted and authentic climax.
Heighton is a Governor General Award-winning poet, a word master par excellence, yet his prose style doesn’t eclipse the storyline. On the contrary, it serves it.
The setting is exotic – an abandoned no-man’s land in contemporary Cyprus – without being distant in space and time. The storyline is compelling. Elias, a Greek-Canadian soldier suffering from PTSD after a tour in Afghanistan, appears to have found a home in a ruined demilitarized zone, a locale frozen in time since 1974. The DMZ is not empty. It hosts a band of outliers as fascinating as any found in CanLit, including The English Patient or A Discovery of Strangers.
The DMZ is a fecund setting, pregnant with promise yet also loss – in a sense, a Garden of Eden. Dislocation and the threat of eviction coexist with human warmth and beautifully simple food. Despite the temptations, the garden does not hold Elias. Or, rather, circumstances do not allow him to be held. He must depart. His gift – and the reader’s boon – is what transpires between his arrival and departure. At novel’s end, he is a changed man, occasionally conflicted, but able to move forward.
A few descriptive excerpts from The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep …
He wakes in the dark. He could be anywhere, or nowhere. Then he spies through a gap in the curtains a row of three clear stars, Orion’s belt.
The moon, a few days beyond full, is blistering up out of the sea.